A Good Man

A Good Man is the final volume in Guy Vanderhaeghe's trilogy of novels set on the Northern Great Plains of the 1870s, along the border of the United States and Canada. The three books engage with actual and, for the most part, terrible historical events, finding much of their story in the intentions and actions of real historical figures. The first, The Englishman's Boy, is peopled in part by the American white and mixed-race wolfers who crossed the border into Canada in 1873 and committed the Cypress Hills Massacre, slaughtering at least twenty-three Assiniboine Indians. The second, The Last Crossing, gives a role to the famous scout and hunter Jerry Potts, a virtuoso of Plains lore and languages, Indian and white. The present novel has the most illustrious cast of all, including Sitting Bull, a number of other Indian leaders, and a couple of key Canadian and U.S. military officers.

The novel opens in July 1876, less than a month after Custer's defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn. This shocking reversal of U.S. military might in the West has left settlers terrified, many of them abandoning their farms and ranches to camp outside forts. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army continues to harry and starve American Indians, a craving for revenge now added to the goal of forcing them onto reservations. The escalating hostilities in the Montana Territory have presented the Canadian government with a big headache and a twofold objective: to discourage Native Americans from fleeing into Canada and to prevent those who do cross over from using Canada as a base of operations for attacking the United States. To fail in this, as one Canadian high governmental official points out, is to "provide an excuse for the American Army to deal with the problem, not on their soil, but ours.... This cannot be allowed to happen. When Americans pay a visit, they have a habit of staying. Think of California, New Mexico, Arizona, all lost to Mexico. There are still plenty of annexationists in Congress looking forward to relieve us of territory."

The relations between Canada and her overmighty southern neighbor are further complicated by anti-British Fenians, many in the U.S. Army: Irish partisans who would like nothing better than to put some hurt on the British Dominion of Canada. All these, plus the hatred seething in the bosoms of veterans of the vanquished Confederate Army, come together here.

But what of the story? The action takes place chiefly between Fort Benton in Montana, which is under the command of the German-American Major Guido Ilges, and Fort Walsh, in what is present-day Saskatchewan, where Major James Walsh, a man sympathetic to the Indians' grim plight, is in charge. The two officers, ordered by their respective governments to prevent violence in a territory drenched in anger, desperation, and fear, cannot stand each other. Walsh, especially, is a problem. He has little taste or talent for the meeching role of the diplomat, flying off the handle when tact is required and priding himself for doing so. Enter the book's main fictional character, Wesley Case, the alienated son of one of Ottawa's wealthy, hard-nosed political insiders. When we meet Case, who long ago rejected the career in politics his father had intended for him, he is quitting the North-West Mounted Police at Fort Walsh to become a rancher near Fort Benton. He reluctantly accepts the frustrating job of running interference between Ilges and Walsh.
 
Forsaking the Mounted Police to become a rancher is not the first change of course for Case. He has tried journalism, architecture, and, as a young man, membership in a militia, from which he was expelled in disgrace over a deed committed in battle. This act, the tragic details of which we only gradually learn, caused his fiancée to dump him. Now, some ten years later, Case falls in love with an unhappily married woman, Ida Tarr. The ups, downs, and repercussions of this affair -- threatened by the menacing presence of a competitor for Tarr's hand, a brutal hit man named Michael Dunne -- constitute an absorbing and suspenseful part of the plot, yet all that pales before Vanderhaeghe's development of Case's and Walsh's predicaments of conscience and dilemmas of duty in the face of the Realpolitik crushing the Native American population on either side of the border.

Wesley Case is sickened by the sort of political maneuvering at which his father is adept but has, nonetheless, absorbed his unsentimental view of the world, the view shared by most white people of the time. It is just a fact to him that the Indians' tenure on the land is finished, that they will be moved to reservations, and that he will profit. Further, he brings a jaded, disparaging eye to Sitting Bull, who with other tribal leaders has found refuge at Fort Walsh.

If Major Walsh's view of things is more sympathetic than Case's, it cannot be called realistic: He is a romantic. Musing to himself on what it would have been like had he been born a Sioux fifty years ago, he contemplates its joys: "A bellyful of fresh-killed meat, a skirmish now and then to keep the blood from going mouldy, a life on the back of a horse. Go off to some spot in the wilderness and dream up your own religion. Each man his own parson. Each man his own boss."  Instead, he is lumbered with obligations which put him in conflict with both his conscience and the authorities. As commander of Fort Walsh, he has the power to offer relief to refugee Indians, but as commander he is also bound by the orders of his superiors. Their goal is to cooperate with the United States in getting these Indians moving south to the barren reservation to which -- in the U.S. government's infinite bad faith -- they've been reassigned.

It is certain that trust exists between Walsh and Sitting Bull -- a fact that gradually dawns on Case -- but it is just as certain that circumstances will lead to the betrayal of this trust. The working-out of this sad business, projected from a number of points of view, is heartbreaking, and Vanderhaeghe's descriptions of the Plains and the life there are stunning. Finally, in its melding of character, plot, and history, A Good Man is an extraordinary novel, unquestionably the trilogy's crowning achievement.

About the Columnist
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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