Before I discuss Guy Vanderhaeghe’s award-winning, best-selling novel The Last Crossing, this review needs to be prefaced with an apology. An apology to… the book.
Book, I’m sorry. I know I joke a lot about how I judge books by their covers, but generally what I mean is that if a book cover is particularly striking or unusual, I will pick it up and perhaps even buy it, even if I have no other driving reason to do so. What I never really considered is the ugly flip side of this practice: the scenario in which I’m so underwhelmed by a book cover that I don’t give the book a fair shot. And you, book? You were just such a case. I hope with this review, I can begin to make amends.
That said; please take a moment to look at the cover of the edition of this book that I have just finished reading. Can we all at least agree that it’s pretty lacklustre? The palette ranges from soft grey to… soft tan. The type treatment is wholly unremarkable, and yet also oddly unbalanced. And the photograph… well, it’s grim, isn’t it? That’s a lot of empty, dusty space, and even the suggestion of speed coming from dust-clouds behind those covered wagons isn’t enough to imply to me that the story contained within is a rousing adventure that stretches across the inhabited and fantastic prairies, west and wilderness of Canada and the US the late 1800s. If the covered wagons wouldn’t be anachronistic, I’d be more likely to assume it was set in the 1930s dustbowl era. Whither the fields, the rivers, the Indian villages, the forts, the buffalo?
Perhaps also notable is that when I went online to look for a graphic of the cover, I had a lot of trouble finding it. Instead, I found several other versions, including the two pictured below. Even the one that uses the exact same image as my edition has a stronger, bolder feel to it. Frankly, I feel a bit vindicated. Google images, and perhaps the internet at large agrees with me: my book had the weakest iteration of the cover.
But enough about packaging. Especially packaging that led me astray.
As a result of my lamentable prejudice, I did two things wrong while reading this book. The first was that I decided that it was going to be a slog before I even started reading it. Because of this, I was only half-paying attention to the narrative for the first few chapters. The second thing I did wrong was to let it drag out over 2-3 weeks of reading in short bursts, rather than making significant time for it. This isn’t entirely unprecedented: the concentration of time I devote to a book is often based in part on how busy I am at that period in time, and also how quickly and thoroughly the book grabs me.
Unfortunately, in this case I didn’t give the book a chance to grab me, and I happened to pick it up during a particularly busy month. The net result being, I missed out on a lot of the genius of the book as it unfolded.
Is genius too strong a word? Perhaps. But I want to (finally) give credit where it is due. This book is almost deceptively well-crafted. I first pegged The Last Crossing as a standard western/family epic: a simple adventure/love story, with a touch of mystery, wrapped in an admittedly interesting history lesson, and featuring an entertaining if perhaps occasionally cliché canvas of characters. But what Vanderhaeghe delivers is also an incredibly well-paced, thought-provoking pastiche comprised of beautifully interwoven stories. The nuances of both character and plot development are revealed in a patient, organic rhythm that was somewhat lost on me given my sporadic reading of the text. But when it all started to tie together so beautifully around the 340-page mark (total page count: 391), I realized that my lack of attention had lessoned the impact of some of the developments that had unfolded along the way. Fortunately, the ending was strong enough that even I felt a satisfying sense of payoff with regards to both the resolution of the characters’ stories and the small mysteries within the narrative. I actually went back and reread the first few chapters: something I suspect other readers of this book will do as well, as the book begins and ends at roughly the same point in time and most of the story takes place in the relative past. The net result is that I found myself absolutely loving this book… but realizing it a little too late. This is definitely one to set aside and reread a few years down the road, once the details have sufficiently faded from memory. Next time, I’ll be sure to give it the undivided and concentrated attention it most certainly deserves.