« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Dispatches from the other border: A review of A Good Man


A Good Man
Guy Vanderhaeghe
448 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
Grove/Atlantic, 2012.

The U.S.-Canadian border has always been overshadowed by its more rambunctious southern equivalent. Still, for a brief period in the late 1800s, the 49th parallel was more than the often-overlooked international boundary it is today: It was the dividing line between two nations deep in the process of self-invention.

This line, in time and in geography, is to Canadian novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe what the Mexico-U.S. border is to Cormac McCarthy -- a passage between worlds that reveals something essential about human nature through the individuals who cross over. A Good Man traces a half-dozen intersecting lives in Montana and Saskatchewan in the years just after the Battle of Little Bighorn, and before the fate of the West's lands and peoples was set on its modern course.

Vanderhaeghe explores the contrasting political and social cultures on either side of the border: To the south, the bluster of Westward expansion, Manifest Destiny and wars of annihilation against indigenous nations; to the north, a more tenuous hold on the land and a sometimes futile reliance on policing the vast, sparsely populated region. But mostly, A Good Man is about conflicting personalities -- by turns a tale of international intrigue, a meditation on trust and betrayal, a love story and a psychological thriller featuring a startlingly original villain.

"The candle carved a closet of illumination, a space of uncomfortable intimacy out of the night," recounts Wesley Case, a soon-to-retire Mountie, upon first meeting his nemesis, Michael Dunne. "(Dunne) was a block of solid flesh hammered into the notch of the saddle. Face cut square, jaw nearly as wide as the broad forehead, small, neat ears laid flat to the temples as if pinned there by tacks. The eyes, almost colourless, pale as rainwater in a pan, flat, depthless."

A Good Man is the last of Vanderhaeghe's three books set along the settlement-era border region. In his own border trilogy, McCarthy uses geography as a character -- always present as a looming force, and often pushing the action this way or that. In contrast, Vanderhaeghe offers a subtler rendering of his setting, as backdrop to characters who live smaller lives, and with less certainty; in this final installment, he leaves it to the reader to decide which character, if any, qualifies as the "Good Man" of the title. It is the quietest of Vanderhaeghe's border books, and rightly so: It captures a time, a place and its people exquisitely, just as they are about to slide into undeserved obscurity.