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Fiction Westerns

A Good Man

by (author) Guy Vanderhaeghe

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
May 2012
Westerns, Historical, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2012
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Multi-award-winning author Guy Vanderhaeghe's eagerly awaited new novel is a dazzling follow up to his bestselling The Englishman's Boy and The Last Crossing (a Canada Reads winner!).

A Good Man culminates what could be thought of as a trilogy of books set in the late nineteenth-century Canadian and American West, and it is a masterpiece. Vanderhaeghe skilfully weaves a rich tapestry of history with the turns of fortune of his most vividly and compellingly drawn cast of characters yet. Vanderhaeghe entwines breathtaking, intriguing, and richly described narratives that contain a compelling love story, a tale of revenge and violence, a spectacular battle scene, the story of an incident in Welsely's past that threatens his relationship with Ada, and much, much more. While raising moral questions, this novel weaves the historical with the personal and stands as Vanderhaeghe's most accomplished and brilliant novel to date.

About the author

Guy Vanderhaeghe was born in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan in 1951. He is the author of six books of fiction. His first two books were collections of short stories: Man Descending (1982), which won the Governor’s General’s Award, and the Faber Prize in the U.K., and The Trouble With Heroes (1983). My Present Age, a novel, was published in 1984 and was followed by Homesick in 1989. That novel was a co-winner of the City of Toronto Book Award. His third book of short stories was the highly praised Things As They Are? (1992). The Englishman’s Boy (1996) was a long-time national bestseller and won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction and for Best Book of the Year, and was short-listed for The Giller Prize, and the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the world’s largest monetary award for a single book. Acclaimed for his fiction, Vanderhaeghe has also written plays. I Had a Job I Liked. Once. was first produced in 1991, and won the Canadian Authors Association Award for Drama. His second play, Dancock’s Dance, was produced in 1995. He is currently completing a screenplay for The Englishman’s Boy. Guy lives in Saskatoon, where he is a Visiting Professor of English at S.T.M. College. His most recent book, The Last Crossing, has been short-listed for a total of three Saskatchewan Book Awards: Best Book of the Year, Fiction Book of the Year, and the Saskatoon Book Award.

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  • Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize

Excerpt: A Good Man (by (author) Guy Vanderhaeghe)


A free-will offering will be collected, all proceeds intended for the relief of friends and neighbors driven from their homes and occupations by the continuing menace from Sioux hostiles.

Fort Benton’s own, the charming and talented MISS CELESTE TARR, shall offer a selection of songs both sacred and secular, accompanied by MRS. RANDOLPH TARR on the pianoforte.

MOSES SOLOMON, ESQ., has generously donated the use of the MAJESTIC STAR SALOON for this charitable endeavor. Mr. Solomon graciously extends an invitation to the entire populace of Fort Benton, of every age and sex.

The sale of alcoholic beverages of any variety or description whatsoever shall not take place during the duration of the concert, nor any disorderly conduct deleterious to a full appreciation and enjoyment of the musical program be countenanced.

Program to take place AUGUST 6TH, EIGHT O’CLOCK SHARP!

The saloon is hot as a boiler room, steaming with the animal heat of closely packed bodies. All the faces around him are beaded with perspiration. The odour is as extreme as the heat, the vinegary, pickling brine smell of sweat laced with the barnyard aromas of manure, horse, and mule given off by teamsters, bullwhackers, and hoop- legged waddies. An undercurrent of river mud and fried catfish wafts off the boatmen; the hide hunters and wolfers stink of old blood, the sharp tang of rusty iron. Add a dollop of spilled beer, sweet and yeasty, the reek of cheap tobacco, and Case feels his eyes are about to water with every pungent breath he draws.

The din is terrific. Despite the owner’s assurances that tonight decorum and propriety will rule, the inexorable inching of the hands of the clock towards the hour of the concert and the suspension of the sale of alcohol has led to a panic among the Majestic’s customers. They are swarming the bar, banging glasses on the zinc top, jostling for position, shouting and gesticulating to catch the attention of harried bartenders who scurry back and forth slopping whiskey into out- thrust shot glasses.

Case’s gaze falls on the Majestic’s proprietor, Moses Solomon. The one serene, still point in bedlam, he stands with his back propped against a beer barrel, squinting at the room through a haze of blue tobacco smoke. His beard is biblical, long and forked. He wears a crimson satin waistcoat buttoned over a white linen shirt; the red satin rosettes on his sleeve garters perfectly match the colour of his vest. His hairstyle is Disraelian, ruffled sissy- boy waves that sweep over his ears and seem scarcely in keeping with his fearsome sobriquet, Moses Mayhem. Case had learned that when Solomon had established Fort Benton’s toniest saloon, the citizenry had not appreciated his success, and had subjected him to a barrage of insult and calumny. But one day Solomon had turned on two of the most persistent Jewbaiters and shot them down on a corner of Front Street. Since then, people stepped very lightly in his presence.

The skull- cracking uproar, the stench, the sweltering temperature, the tight press of bodies is almost too much to bear. Hathaway has disappeared, swallowed up in the crowd, and Case is at the point of beating a strategic retreat when he sees Major Ilges looming above the throng, beckoning him. It’s a struggle for Case to reach the Major but when he does, he discovers a relatively calm island in the stormy saloon, a row of chairs reserved for the town’s notables in front of the piano, most of them already occupied.

“So glad to see you, Mr. Case,” says Ilges. “Will you be my guest? I’m sure Lieutenant Blanchard would surrender his seat so you might sit beside me.” The officer asked to relinquish his place shows no evidence of a willingness to surrender anything but withdraws with a sullen, put- upon look as Case demurs accepting. But finally he has no alternative but to settle down on the gracelessly vacated chair.

The Major immediately launches into introductions to the Fort Benton quality. In turn, Case is presented to a young dentist who has just opened a practice in town, the pressman of the Fort Benton Record, a goggle- eyed druggist, and Dr. Cornelius Hooper, Fort Benton’s most accomplished surgeon. The town’s biggest fishes follow: the merchant princes T.C. Power, Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Baker, the Conrad brothers, and the tycoons’ wives. The gentlemen are solemn and sober in black broadcloth. The ladies are bedecked, bedizened, and loaded down with jewellery, lavishly swathed in yards of taffeta and silk, and severely corseted.

Ilges insists on describing Case as a young man come to Benton seeking business opportunities. Hearing that, most of the leading businessmen’s faces take on a bored, patronizing look, a look that says, How often have I heard that and how often have I seen the results – bankruptcy. Apologetically, Case qualifies the Major’s description. “Not so much business as ranching. In a small way.”

One of the Conrad brothers remarks, “If it’s land you’re after, now’s the time to plunge. Some of the cattlemen are looking to sell up. The recent troubles have them spooked. If you want to drop by the office sometime, I can give you the name of one or two who are looking for a buyer. I don’t touch land myself. It’s not liquid.”

“Very generous of you,” says Case, becoming aware that the racket is subsiding to a low murmuring and expectant shuffling of feet.

In this instant of almost quiet, Major Ilges leans over, puts his mouth to Case’s ear, and whispers, “What we spoke about the other day – I have weighed things carefully. I am agreeable. Come to see me tomorrow.”

“Very well. I will indeed.”

Behind them, Moses Solomon bellows at those still lingering hopefully at the bar, “Stand back! Clear off ! Immediate! Music about to begin!” Fort Benton’s princes of commerce brace themselves on their seats as if a tooth- puller were approaching, while their wives coyly survey the scene over fluttering fans, straining for a glimpse of the musical entertainment. Case hears one of the women say, “Now young Miss Tarr is a dear, sweet thing, but the way Mrs. Tarr acts is another matter. So very superior.” As his eyes search the room for a glimpse of this superior woman, he spots Hathaway loitering hard by the improvised stage, a smile on his face, his Adam’s apple dancing as he swallows his excitement.

There is a voluntary parting, a shifting and stirring of the multitude to make way for the Tarr family. With a stately and measured tread, Randolph Tarr escorts wife and daughter, one on each arm, their white gloves perched on the sleeves of his best frock coat like obedient doves. The saloon falls into a respectful hush as blond, pink Celeste and dark- haired, pale Ada advance on the piano.

Case is surprised to see Michael Dunne stalking along behind the Tarr family, his colourless eyes restlessly sweeping over the assembly. Briefly they hold on Case, and Dunne bares his teeth – whether in a smile of recognition or a challenge Case can’t decide. When the procession halts before the piano Dunne looks a bit befuddled, at a loss as to what to do or where to go. But then he collects himself and plods to a location near Hathaway where he folds his arms over his chest and assumes a look of self- important, alert readiness. Tarr ushers his womenfolk to their respective places, gives a courtly bow to each, and takes a chair that has been held open for him beside Mr. T.C. Power.

Case nudges Ilges and asks, “That fellow Dunne skulking about there. What connection does he have with this?”

“It’s said an unhappy client of Tarr’s has threatened the peace of his household. Apparently Dunne has been hired as some sort of bodyguard.” Ilges juts his jaw disapprovingly. “But I think his presence is hardly necessary here.”

Ada Tarr is fussing with her music, and Miss Celeste is offering the room her profile, one slender, gloved hand resting on the piano top. The thrust of her chin, the way her stance displays her figure to full advantage, suggests she has spent hours posing before a mirror, indulged in many finicky adjustments and sidelong glances at herself in the glass. The cuirasse bodice of her lilac gown displays a slender waist and gives an upward thrust to plump, girlish breasts. An intricately beaded polonaise bustle, elaborately pleated and ruffled, cascades behind her to the floor. A thick plait of white- blond hair dangles over her left shoulder like the tail of a docile cat; her tiny mouth is vivid with lip rouge. She stands as perfectly still as a Wedgwood figurine. Her stepmother is another picture altogether. Ada Tarr is dressed in a modest high- necked grey gown, hair primly parted down the middle and drawn into a tight bun. But she wears a wry, enigmatic smile at odds with her severe and spinsterly appearance. She makes Case think of the older, unmarried sister at the wedding, the one who knows unflattering comparisons are being made between her and the bride, but remains determined to rely on her own estimation of her worth.

Moses Solomon is making his way towards the front, a piece of paper clutched in his hand, a sure sign that a ponderous introduction is about to be delivered. Seeing him coming, Ada Tarr tilts her head at her stepdaughter and slams out a thunderous chord, transfixing the publican in his tracks. The melody established, Celeste’s high, tremulous voice scrambles after it, and Solomon scrambles back to the refuge of the bar.

“Shall we gather at the river, / Where bright angel feet have trod, / With its crystal tide forever? / Flowing by the throne of God?” sings Celeste, so invitingly that the roughnecks stare at her pretty shoes, as if this vision’s feet are those described in the hymn – bright and angelic.

The chorus impending, Ada Tarr’s right hand leaves the keyboard in a commanding gesture that urges the audience to join in the refrain. And they do, at first in a tentative mumble that slowly swells into fervent disharmony. “Yes, we’ll gather at the river, / The beautiful, beautiful river; / Gather with the saints at the river / That floats by the throne of God.” As the last words of the chorus are bellowed, her hand flies up again, then gives a downward chop that axes them into silence as Celeste commences the next verse. Three more times Ada’s hand flashes a trainman’s signal and the chorus rumbles into action like a locomotive, three more times she slashes it down, slamming on the brakes.

Case, like everyone else, sings on cue, but unlike the rest of the audience, he feels irritable, growing increasingly annoyed at Mrs. Tarr’s imperious manipulation of them, at the mildly sardonic twist to the conductor’s lips. Still, despite a vague feeling of hostility, he can’t keep his eyes off her, off that shockingly white, luminous face.

Just like that, “Shall We Gather at the River” ends. A ripple of uncertainty runs through the audience. Is it sacrilegious to applaud a hymn? A few waddies and teamsters begin to clap and whistle, but before the acclaim can secure a toehold, Mrs. Tarr arches her eyebrows at Celeste and they launch into “Come Home, Father.” The lugubrious air proceeds, Little Mary pleading piteously with Father to leave the bar because Brother Benny, lying cradled in Mother’s arms, is deathly ill. But Father, crazed by demon drink, refuses. Back home, Benny expires, the last words on his lips a wish to kiss Papa good night.

When the last line comes, Case can hear a good many demon drinkers in the audience snuffling and clearing their throats. He catches the sound of a stifled sob, disguised as a cough as Ada Tarr bustles her stepdaughter headlong into the next selection. And that is how the evening’s program unrolls, song following song without a pause, “Grandfather’s Clock,” “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” “Oh, Come, Angel Band,” “Brother’s Fainting at the Door.” Celeste delivers them with her eyes fixed on a corner where wall meets ceiling; each is sung with the passionless, mechanical tunefulness of a music box, her body stiff as a pikestaff.

An uncanny, clenched tension builds in the room. Case can sense the men’s struggle to master the sentiment these songs and hymns have stirred up in them. Since they boomed out “Shall We Gather at the River,” they haven’t been able to give vent to their feelings; even the release that a stirring ovation could provide them has been denied. Everything they’ve heard is a catalogue of woe, regret, and loss. Case is certain that the old hymns, the old songs have awakened homesickness: memories of a kitchen in Massachusetts, a stretch of black, muddy field in Ohio, a moor purpled with heather in Scotland, a green pasture spotted with red horses in Kentucky.

And more. Death hovers in all these tunes. Like a man who takes a drink of water and tastes silt when he comes to the bottom of the glass, they feel mortality on their tongues. A dying child, a clock in a parlour stopped by an old man’s last heartbeat, a soldier expiring on the doorstep – not even a lavish sugarcoating of sentimentality can sweeten the bitter taste in their mouths.

Only when the rousing finale comes does the crowd shake off its gloom. It is “Garryowen,” the song that the newspapers have reported the 7th Cavalry marched off to, bound for the Little Bighorn. “Our hearts so stout have got us fame, / For soon ’tis known from whence we came; / Where’er we go they dread the name / Of Garryowen in glory.”

An eruption comes with the first words. An outburst so violent that Miss Celeste flinches; her eyes fall from that distant spot she’s been contemplating and swing to the bellowing mouths. Now is their chance to march against death, to put it on the run with a stirring tune. Trample it under their boots. There is a ruckus of concussive hand clapping, foot stomping. Shot glasses jump on the counter; ceiling lamps rock on their chains, dust puffs up between the floorboards as if the sallow revenants of Custer’s slaughtered men are resurrecting. Miss Celeste’s voice is lost in the roar. Her lips keep silently forming the words as Mrs. Tarr gallops the tempo, beating the keyboard harder and harder, trying to end this wild demonstration by whipping on the song to its finish. Smashing out the last chord, she leaps up from the piano bench, flaps her hands at the audience to drive home the point “Garryowen” is over and done.

But there’s no quelling the riot. A black fireworks of shapeless, battered hats pitches into the air, a deep- throated holler comes as the mob surges forward, heaves up against the backs of the chairs holding Fort Benton’s most eminent citizens. Everyone is shoved and rocked; there is a scramble to get to their feet to avoid being upset on the floor. The Benton ladies are scowling, jerking shawls into place; their husbands tug down coattails and try to look imposing, but can’t quite manage the trick. A moment of confused indecision and then Fort Benton’s finest begin to make a hurried exit from the scene, the men hustling their womenfolk towards the door with stealthy, shamefaced haste. In moments, the front row empties, all except for Mr. Randolph Tarr, who looks like the one forlorn courtier left to hold the palace while royalty flees.

A walleyed prospector shouts, “Give us another song!” a demand bolstered by wild cheers. Remembering Custer’s death has got the mob’s blood up; their mood is jovially belligerent, but they might turn ugly- sour if they don’t get what they want. Near the piano, Celeste is clinging to her stepmother’s hand like a little girl, blue eyes popped wide with fright. Mrs. Tarr turns the cold stare of a judge threatened with losing control of the courtroom onto the boisterous horde.

They’re all chanting “Song! Song!” at the top of their lungs, and Celeste appears to be contemplating burying her face in Mother’s skirts. Ada shouts, “Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Please! Please, gentlemen!” Gradually, the clamour dies down. “We thank you for your very generous approbation, which is much appreciated,” declares Ada sternly, “but Miss Celeste’s voice is not strong, and must not be overtaxed. She must decline an encore.”

Case glances to Peregrine Hathaway, whose face is worriedly knotted at the sight of Celeste’s distress, and hopes to God the boy doesn’t attempt to intervene. Mr. Tarr certainly shows no signs of coming to the ladies’ succour, aside from offering the room a timid, appeasing smile over his shoulder.

“You then, Missus,” shouts someone. “You ain’t used your voice up. You give us a song. It’s for a good cause, them that’s been turned out of house and home. We’ll pay. What say, boys?” A coin sails through the air, strikes the piano, clatters to the floor. And then pennies come flying from every direction, a shower of copper hail, bouncing all around the Tarr women, Celeste ducking and cringing, one arm thrown protectively over her head while Ada cries out, “Stop! Stop! Stop now!”

The storm of change peters out and the men switch to clapping and stamping, a bullying drum roll. Mrs. Tarr steers Celeste over to her father and leaves her in his care. He gives a few in - effectual pats to his daughter’s back that only result in Celeste’s head drooping even lower. Ada Tarr strides back to the piano, stares at the rabble until they fall silent. “All right,” she says quietly, “I’ll give you a song.”

Bowing her head, she pensively shoves a coin about on the floor with the toe of her shoe. She begins to hum, searching for the melody. The audience strains to catch the tune but in the beginning it’s unidentifiable, nothing but a low, tentative drone. Gradually, the hum begins to strengthen, and as it does Ada Tarr’s head begins to lift, eyes clenched so tightly shut that a pearl of moisture gleams in their corners, her hands spasmodically opening and closing, clutching for whatever the music is that she is hearing in her head.

Everyone recognizes the song when she begins to sing, but Ada Tarr has slowed the tempo, turned it into a dirge, a longdrawn- out lament. Her voice is grating, harsh, wiping all the verve and bounce out of what was once a rollicking challenge to the secessionists by the North. She has taught a familiar song to speak a new language.

“We live in hard and stirring times, / Too sad for mirth, too rough for rhymes; / For songs of peace have lost their chimes, / And that’s what’s the matter.”

Case can feel the room breathless behind him as she stands there like a blind woman, hands opening and closing as if trying to grasp and pull some form out of the darkness she has surrounded herself with. “That’s what’s the matter, / The rebels have to scatter; / We’ll make them flee, / By land and sea, / And that’s what’s the matter.” Somehow she succeeds in making boisterous defiance sound hopeless, painful and poignant. Against their will, Mrs. Tarr drags the audience along with her through every single verse of the song, darkening and wringing sorrow out of words that no one guessed held sorrow in them. And when she finishes, no one moves, no one makes a sound. Then, whatever has taken possession of Ada Tarr drains out of her. Her face relaxes; her hands drop to her side; her eyes open, washed clear and shining.

There is no applause, only an angry mumbling, the scrape of boots shifting irritably on the floor. The spell of her performance broken, all they are left with is the bare and literal meaning of the words, an insult to every Southerner in the room.

Someone says, “Bitch.”

In the front row, Randolph Tarr’s head gives a twitch. “I’ll say good evening now.”

Ada’s voice is even and pleasant. Head held high, carriage impeccable, she walks into the audience, files down the narrow corridor that opens for her, serenely passes through a gauntlet of hostile looks. Dunne rushes after her and overtakes his ward just as she is going out the door of the saloon.

The men drift back to the bar, many muttering and shaking their heads in disgruntled amazement. Solomon’s doorman is already busy harvesting coins from the floor. Case feels a tap on the shoulder and turns to face Ilges. “Look at poor Lawyer Tarr,” the Major says, “calculating how many clients he’s likely lost tonight. Given all the Southerners in this town, a man would think he had been dropped down in Georgia. Having your wife rub your customers’ noses in their defeat – it’s not good for business.”

Tarr and his daughter have only one well- wisher: Peregrine Hathaway, who is showering a visibly dismayed Miss Celeste with frantic compliments, compliments she seems incapable of appreciating in her distraught condition. Despite this, Peregrine slogs on, a trooper of good cheer.

Case turns away from the distressing scene. “I’m going to leave now,” he says to Ilges in an undertone. “Would it suit if I came by at four o’clock tomorrow afternoon?”

“Yes,” says Ilges, “that would suit.”

Case departs without bothering to attempt to collect Hathaway. Outside the Majestic, he pauses to draw in a draft of cool, fresh air and give a glance to a sky speckled with ice- chip stars. Then he starts for the Overland Hotel, boot heels thudding hollowly on the planks of the boardwalk as Ada Tarr, that strange woman, insinuates herself into his thoughts.

Up the street, he sees two figures that bring him to a halt. Mrs. Tarr and Mr. Dunne stand in the shadows of Wetzel’s mercantile. The great slab of Dunne’s body is tipped so close to her that she is forced back against the storefront. He appears to be pressing some argument or declaration, emphasizing whatever he is saying with vehement bobs of the head.

Dunne’s aggressive posture, his way of boring in on the woman, connects to what has just transpired in the saloon – the song, the hostile reception to it. Something arises in Case’s brain, a picture comes to him of a small man, his trouser bottoms soggy with melted snow, shrinking back against a wall in the Queen’s Hotel in Toronto, trembling, as he’s berated. The words Dunne, bloody Dunne suddenly come to Case and he wonders if he might have the answer to why Dunne acted as if he presumed to know him that night in the Cypress Hills.

Now Dunne is gallantly holding out his arm to Mrs. Tarr. She hesitates before taking it. A decorous advance down Front Street begins; they look like a long- married couple out enjoying a pleasant evening stroll.

Editorial Reviews

A Globe and Mail Best Book

"Vanderhaeghe's frontier trilogy. . . is a rumination on the birth of the nation itself."
Toronto Star

"Impeccably crafted . . . deeply satisfying . . . more entertaining than political historical novels about nationhood have any business being. . . . [A] towering achievement worthy of celebration."
Globe and Mail

"With A Good Man, Vanderhaeghe's eye for implication has never been more clearly focused. . . . It is sure to become, deservedly so, a classic."
Toronto Star

"A love story, a thriller, a Conradian meditation on courage and manhood. . . . An epic that matches its grand ambitions."
Winnipeg Free Press

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