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A brother's keepers

The dangerous search for a lost idealistic sibling in the American West

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To Americans, a bestseller in Canada is like a tree falling in the forest. Unless it's written by Margaret Atwood, they don't hear it and it doesn't exist. A beautiful novel by Francis Itani followed that parochial rule last fall. No. 1 in Canada, "Deafening" barely made a sound on the other side of the border. This baffling literary disconnect between the world's two most connected nations is about to be tested again. Guy Vanderhaeghe's "The Last Crossing" was selected as one of the best books of the year by Canada's major newspapers. The Canadian Booksellers Association chose it as their favorite novel of 2002, and readers there have sent it to the top of the bestseller list. If there's any literary justice, any thirst for adventure, any love for a great Western, then "The Last Crossing" won't just cross the Canadian border, but shatter it.

With points of view that rotate among half a dozen characters, settings that jump from England to America to Canada, and time periods that slip back and forth across the 19th century, it sounds like an arduous journey (of course Canadians would like it), but part of Vanderhaeghe's genius is melding all these elements into an irresistible story.

Mr. Gaunt, a ruthless industrialist in England, has three sons who have disappointed him in different ways despite his efforts to mold them into great men. His eldest, Addington, pursued a promising military career until it was cut short by his rash cruelty. Charles insists on studying art, which is no way for a grown man to behave. And Simon lilts about in second-hand clothes like a cryptic mystic, reading romantic poetry and posing Socratic questions.

The story begins with the discovery that Simon has disappeared somewhere in the American West while following a charlatan who planned to convert Indians. The minister's body has been found frozen and disemboweled (no converted Indians nearby), but Mr. Gaunt insists that Simon is alive, and he dispatches his remaining two sons to find him and bring him back to England.

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