Reviewed by Justin Pfefferle
A Good Man
McClelland and Stewart, 2011
Guy Vanderhaeghe’s latest novel, A Good Man, follows The Englishman’s Boy (1996) and The Last Crossing (2002) as the final installment in a loosely connected trilogy about the Canadian west. Set mainly in what is now called Saskatchewan between 1876 and 1877, the narrative begins on the heels of Custer’s humiliating defeat by the Sioux at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and only a decade removed from the American Civil War. Canada, poised uncertainly between Great Britain and the United States, does not yet know what kind of country it will be. A complex, ever-shifting web of personal and political loyalties prevails, in the middle of which sits Wesley Case: disgraced soldier, burgeoning homesteader, and reluctant good man.
Like Conrad’s Lord Jim, Case is haunted by the memory of failure and shame. As the Captain of the Queen’s Own at the Battle of Ridgeway, he committed an act that he deemed reprehensible, and to which he would later confess in a statement to his father’s solicitors. Baron Case worked to make his son’s “shameful last act of military service” (8) disappear by cashing in favours with Sir John A. Macdonald. Case, however, cannot rid himself of guilt and seems determined to punish himself through self-sabotage. His past transgression accompanies him in the present, when he acts as a mediary between Canadian and American interests in the question of the Sioux uprising. Forced to navigate a challenging political terrain, Case cannot help but read his current predicament in the light of recent history, when he fell short of his own ideals and gave expression to the worst of human potential.
Case filters the present through the lens of the past. Similarly, Vanderhaeghe encourages his reader to understand the contemporary situation in terms of what one might think of as distant history. His novel, like history itself, consists of multiple competing, contradictory texts. Case’s diary entries appear alongside letters that are written back and forth between him and his father, then between Case and Generals Walsh and Ilges. Newspaper articles, containing lies and half-truths, clamour for readerly attention next to self-consciously fictional works, namely novels. Ada Tarr, the wife of a bumbling fool of a lawyer, puts texts into circulation through her consumption of novels. A voracious reader of George Eliot, Ada possesses a formidable library: “Bentham, Mills, Burke, Locke, Hobbes. There are numerous abolitionist pamphlets and bound numbers of a journal called The Lily. Several shelves contain the usual English poets, the plays of Shakespeare, novels by Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Thackeray, Trollope, and Defoe. There is much more George Eliot, including the essays” (108). Texts within texts affirm the literary quality of the historical imagination. Less an individual narrative than a tapestry of numerous and overlapping works, Vanderhaeghe’s history of western Canada is a story with multiple tellers and multiple conclusions.
The individuals who inhabit A Good Man are as multiple and contradictory as the text itself. Case might be the good man of Vanderhaeghe’s title, but he is hardly without human frailties: spitefulness, cowardice, and short-sightedness. Michael Dunne, a fully conceived villain, sells himself to the highest bidder and proves himself capable of savagery. Yet his feelings of tenderness for Ada hint at a depth of character that Vanderhaeghe further alludes to by giving his reader glimpses into Dunne’s troubled past. He is both a good man and a very bad one. Major Walsh lacks political savvy, which he replaces with insolence and stupidity. His sympathies for the Sioux, however, place him on the right side of history, while his friendship with Sitting Bull and implicit rejection of the British reveal his loyalties as personal, not national. And Sitting Bull, an enigmatic, oft-mythologised figure who appears late in the novel, is perhaps the most challenging of Vanderhaeghe’s characters. Politically nimble, Bull “will choose his friends to suit the situation” (377). But despite deft manoeuvrings, Sitting Bull adheres to an ethical code in ways that lift him above the novel’s other good men.
Characters’ moral complexities mirror an equally fraught political situation. To his credit, Vanderhaeghe rejects a pat, moralising reading of western Canadian history in favour of a nuanced engagement with the past. The story of the Canadian west is, inevitably, a story about subjugation. The reader knows from the outset that things are not going to end well for the Sioux. While the novel rejects the values of the governments that determine the fate of Sitting Bull and his people, it also recognises the humanity of those who inherit the land at the Sioux’s expense. Joe Mullen and Case personify the homesteader ideals of honesty and hard work. Even as they benefit from the numerous injustices perpetrated by the government, they cannot help but earn the sympathies of the reader. Such an ethical conundrum persists: at the same time as one celebrates the values of one’s settling ancestors, so must one acknowledge the racism and colonialism that made their settlement possible in the first place.
A Good Man takes place more than a century ago, but it is very much a novel of our own time. If protectionism and fear of the Other motivate Canadian politics in the twenty-first century, it is perhaps because they have done so since before the formation of Canada as an idea. So too, Vanderhaeghe’s novel suggests, have decency and fair-mindedness been built into the national fabric, at least at the level of theory. Vanderhaeghe depicts a nation on the cusp of acquiring an identity that is independent of Britain and the United States. For better and for worse, the Canada that he imagines reminds us very much of the Canada that we live in today.
At press time: Justin Pfefferle is a PhD candidate at McGill, where he's writing a dissertation about Surrealism and documentary in Britain during the Second World War.
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