John Buchan’s last novel Sick Heart River is not a story of crime, nor is it a thriller. It is a novel of high adventure. But it deserves a mention on Gaslight Crime, because it is the final outing of his series hero Edward Leithen – in many ways the most interesting of Buchan’s characters and perhaps the nearest in temperament to the author himself.
Leithen made his first appearance in the short story Space and his first real outing in The Power House, which we reviewed a few weeks ago. His novel adventures include John Macnab, The Dancing Floor and The Gap in the Curtain.
Sick Heart River (sometimes known by the title Mountain Meadow in the USA) was first published in 1941, given to a world beset by World War Two. The shadow of that war hangs over this book, though it’s not in any way a novel of war.
John Buchan, in his role as Governor-General, had signed Canada’s declaration of war in September 1939, at a time when he would have been writing this book.
Buchan hated war and Sick Heart River gives a strong feeling of his known world falling apart.
He died, suddenly, in February 1940, just days after completing Sick Heart River and his autobiography Memory Hold the Door. But he had been in poor health for quite a time and much of this is reflected in the plight of his hero Ned Leithen.
Sick Heart River will never be our favourite Buchan read, but it is, in both our opinion, the finest book he ever wrote – a literary masterpiece.
It is also a book of admiration for the Canada he’d come to know and love during his five years as Governor-General, with wonderfully descriptive passages about the arctic and the people who struggle to survive there.
Sick Heart River is a novel about confronting death – something we all have to do and the prospect must have been very much on Buchan’s mind. In his early essay Scholar Gipsies, written when the author was probably not twenty years old, he writes of a friend dying of a slow disease, probably tuberculosis. A man who rather than succumbing to the traditional death bed, takes to foot to face death standing in the hills of the Scottish Borders.
“Face death standing” – the expression comes from a Roman emperor, Vespasian; in fact Buchan puts the quote in to Leithen’s thoughts in his novel – “He would die standing, as Vespasian said an emperor should.”
Leithen, survivor of so many dangerous situations, now faces death himself. Weakened by a gas attack in the Great War, he has tuberculosis. The health and strength he prided in having have fled. He is weakened, debilitated, and has just months to live.
Rather like the character in that early essay, Leithen decides to face death standing – to have one last adventure.
He is approached by the American John S. Blenkiron, a favourite Buchan character of ours, to seek out the missing Francis Galliard, a French Canadian banker in New York, who has walked away from his life and disappeared in the north of Canada. Taking a long journey, first to America and then on to Quebec, Leithen trails Galliard and his guide Lew Frizel into the great wilderness of the arctic.
This is not just a book about physical decline but about mental strain as well. Lew Frizel is obsessed with finding the Sick Heart River, a place that should be paradise but turns out to be anything but. It becomes clear that, in his obsession, Lew Frizel has abandoned Galliard. Finding both now becomes the task of both Leithen and Lew Frizel’s brother Johnny.
How they find them and what the quest does to them all is the theme of the novel. As Leithen progresses through a landscape of freezing ice and snow his health improves, he gets back his strength and his will to live. He begins to plan a quiet old age with the shadow of death removed? But is his escape from mortality realistic?
There are, in this novel, some of the finest descriptions of landscapes in Buchan. His knowledge of the north came both from an official trip in 1937 along the Mackenzie River and the far north experiences of his son Johnnie who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
But the arctic, rather like the valley of the Sick Heart River, is not portrayed as a paradise. The North is given to us as a place of peril and decay, where the native Hare Indians are themselves sick and indolent – so mentally exhausted that they no longer want to bother to even save themselves by finding food and drink.
So Leithen, having achieved the first part of his quest, devotes his recovering strength to saving the Hares from themselves, providing them with food and shelter and giving them a reason to go on living. But there is a price to be paid for such magnanimity.
Sick Heart River is a novel of adventure as well as spiritual quest. A tale of a dying man making his soul and discovering what his life has been all about. But it is not in the least morbid. It is very much a tale of hope. A novel to make you think and consider what life should be all about.
Buchan projects his characters into the spring of 1940 – a spring the author was destined never to experience himself. Cut off from civilisation for many months, Leithen learns that the dreaded war has begun.
It’s interesting to me that many of the first readers of Sick Heart River, facing the prospect of death on a massive scale, must have dwelt on the same questions about mortality as Ned Leithen.
Buchan’s greatest novel has a message for us all.