A Good Man
In the 1870s, the resistance of the Plains Indians to the inexorable advance of the United States was coming to its tragic and terrible end on the high plains of Montana. Guy Vanderhaeghe’s excellent novel does justice to the heroic genius of Sitting Bull and the suffering of his people; fortunately, he leavens the dread and guilt and sorrow of this history with a beautiful, grown-up love story between two lively, warmly drawn and interesting people.
Both Wesley Case and Ada Tarr are suffering from some bad decisions earlier in their lives. The frontier for each represents a chance at renewal, as it did for so many people in real time. Vanderhaeghe’s description of life on the edge of civilization is detailed, unsentimental, and demythologized; this is about the West, but it isn’t a Western, although there’s plenty of action.
The necessary threat to Wesley and Ada’s happiness comes from one of the best villains I’ve read in a long time. Vanderhaeghe shrewdly invades this man’s psychopathic mind and makes him both horrible and utterly believable, and he nearly steals the novel.
The author’s gift for characterization and his fluent, literate style overcome some curious tics in the book, which is told sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes in present tense and sometimes in past. Wonderful passages abound. The Milky Way “hangs its trembling canopy” over travelers. “Birds fling out of the trees, turn into mad whirring specks.” All in all, A Good Man is a nifty piece of work, true both to the time it portrays and to our own, the best kind of historical fiction.