With the upcoming publication of A Good Man, Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe concludes a very loose trilogy of sweeping historical novels that has occupied him for nearly two decades.
Vanderhaeghe’s enormous literary achievement began with The Englishman’s Boy in 1996, and continued with The Last Crossing in 2002. Critical and commercial successes both, the former won the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, and was adapted for a CBC Television miniseries. The latter won CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2004 and topped the bestseller list.
A Good Man is Vanderhaeghe’s most intricately plotted novel of the three books and is a rich tale of morality, romance, and espionage set during a pivotal time in the history of two young countries, Canada and the United states.
Like its forerunners, it can be read entirely as a standalone, and tells the triangular story of Wesley Case, son of an influential Ottawa lumber baron, who is trying to make his way in the world; of Ada Tarr, who tests herself and the bounds of gender; and of a budding spy named Michael Dunne.
As a trilogy, the books are chiefly linked by time and place, straddling an indistinct Medicine Line between prairie Canada and the U.S. circa 1870. This semi-lawless borderland of whisky forts, guns, and cultural collisions has fascinated Vanderhaeghe ever since, as a 10-year-old only child growing up in the town of Esterhazy in southeast Saskatchewan, he ploughed his way through Paul Sharp’s scholarly but lively history book Whoop-up Country.
As always, Vanderhaeghe places his fictional actors on a stage busy with historical figures. In this case he chooses two compelling stars: the great Sioux warrior-chief Sitting Bull, who sought asylum with his people in Canada after defeating Custer at Little Big Horn; and Major James Morrow Walsh, the North West Mounted Police officer who tried to shield the Sioux from American vengeance.
Up to now, Vanderhaeghe has chosen not to worry about that enduring problem for historical-fiction writers – signaling to the reader where the boundary lies between story and history. But with the added complexities of A Good Man, he has decided to include an author’s note to help guide the reader between fact and fiction.
The period detail we have come to expect of Vanderhaeghe is abundantly on display in the new volume, and clearly reflects painstaking research. The author, who has a master’s degree in history, travelled to both the national archives in Ottawa and the state archive of Nebraska gathering material for this latest novel.
Now 60, with his epic trilogy complete, Guy Vanderhaeghe faces the inevitable question: what next? “My inclination is not to return to this material. I think there is a point where you can know something too well and lose the light of discovery,” he says.
“I do have a novel sitting in a drawer which I abandoned. A novel without a horse in it, contemporary in the sense of being in my own time period…I would like to write a comic novel, a black comedy. I had a crack at that in the 1980s, and nothing was ever as much fun to write.”
Based on a recent article in Quill & Quire magazine.