Home > History, Literature, Reviews > Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing and the Liminal West

Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing and the Liminal West

The concept of liminality has come into more popular usage from anthropological terminology. There it indicates a specific stage of religious or spiritual rituals in which the participant deconstructs his or her identity in relation to the society or culture to which they belong and which erects that imagined palace of belonging on the basis of the ritual. The liminal period vibrates with a sense of limbo, the liminal space defined as a purgatory-like way-station, an interval of transition for the self between an established relational trajectory to the subject’s community and the altered trajectory to that community that awaits on the other side of the ritual. Liminality’s meaning has generalized as it has entered more widespread usage, but even less precise applications carry the essence of its anthropological dimension.

The Last Crossing, the 2002 novel by Saskatchewan writer Guy Vanderhaeghe, is a nested narrative of the liminal wherein a journey through the vast uncivilized spaces of the West is the ritual of formation (and re-formation, and de-formation). Two thelastcrossingEnglish brothers surnamed Gaunt, the arrogant former military man Addington and the more decent and sensitive painter Charles, set off on the nearly-cold trail of a third, vanished brother, the stubborn and pious Simon, who was last seen in the expansive no man’s land between present-day Montana, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Guided by the legendary half-Native, half-Scottish frontier figure Jerry Potts, the Gaunts are accompanied by a hack writer named Ayto suckling on Addington’s thirst for heroism and glory and the imperious Lucy Stoveall, who believes that the suspected murderer of her beloved sister may be at large in the vicinity of Simon’s area of disappearance. They are followed by a proud, determined Civil War vet named Custis Straw, who has pined after Lucy for many a day, and his friend, a no-nonsense Irish barkeep called Aloysius Dooley. This motley band of voyageurs are all after different things, are all participating in their own specific rituals, disconnected from whatever community it is that they are supposed to belong to. All find what it is they are after, in one form or another, in a daunting wilderness that is itself traversing an uncertain threshold between two states, two eras of history and human development.

There are many crossings in The Last Crossing that could be construed as the “last”. The Gaunt brothers cross the ocean to search for something vital that they cannot find in England: Simon seeks spiritual meaning and becomes lost, in a sort of permanent limbo, while Charles and Addington ostensibly cross the Atlantic to look for Simon but have other objectives to this ritual journey as well. The crossing of the then non-existent border between the relatively settled United States and the sparsely habitated British-held and First Nations-patrolled lands of Canada is undertaken without notice, and it will not be the last. Death, which comes for us all and for some of these characters in the novel’s purview, is an obvious reference point, conceived of in Greek mythology as a literal crossing of the River Styx between this world and the world of the dead.

This liminal “death” crossing is shared by the old order of the West making way for undeniable settlement and civilization, exemplified by the cultural destruction of the First Nations, denuded by smallpox and warfare, demolished by alcohol, confined to reservations. Jerry Potts, a half-breed, a mediator between white and Native realms, never entirely belonging in either, is the guide through a space of churning liminality that only he can navigate smoothly. The white characters that he shepherds along on the meandering journey through the wild spaces of the West are re-made (or un-made) in blood rituals that leave them irrevocably changed: Straw on a Civil War battlefield (The Wilderness, natch), Addington in a primal encounter with a grizzly bear, Simon sheltering inside a dead horse in a snowstorm.

Vanderhaeghe’s prose is most poetic when it describes the immortal landscape of the West, which confounds the trained hand of the artist Charles Gaunt but not so the seasoned hand of the author. But the beauty of his words resides fitfully in the transitional ambiguity of the liminal West, where civilization both European and Native American shifts its identity, sheds its past self with the expectation of emerging, new and greater than before, at the end of the crossing. But The Last Crossing dwells in elegiac ambiguity, suggesting that the crossing is never completed and is, in this way, the last. The settlement of the North American West is not a ritualized crucible from which modern life emerges like a butterfly from a chrysalis. For Guy Vanderhaeghe, the West is a liminal space from which we have never emerged to reconnect with a prior community, and modern life persists in this stasis of unsettled disorientation.

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Categories: History, Literature, Reviews
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