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Castorboy

John Buchan

Sick Heart River is Buchan’s last novel published in 1941 and possibly his worst. I had bought it over 20 years ago and had resisted reading it knowing it was the last. However after nearly a year on BigReaders and a TBR list of over 80 books I realised there were plenty of quality books to read. The 1981 edition I bought has an introduction in which it states this is his best book. I disagree totally. We’ve all heard of the ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl and then finally boy gets the girl’. Well this story is much simpler – man searches for another, finds him and returns ‘home’.

The man is London lawyer Sir Edward Leithen (Buchan’s self portrait) who first appeared in the canon in the 1916 novel The Power House where a meglamaniac tries to control the world’s finances. Now 25 years on Leithen is dying of tuberculosis. He tidies up his affairs and prepares to end his days in a nursing home.
That’s when John Blenkiron, an American financier, arranges to meet him. He brings news of old friends Archie Roylance and Richard Hannay. But it’s his niece, sister of the wife of another old friend of Leithen’s, who he wants to talk about. It seems the niece’s husband Francis Galliard has disappeared in the North East Territories of Canada and someone needs to search for him. Leithen decides that he needs some physical activity to take his mind of his illness. So he travels to New York and finds out from Galliard’s friends and business associates a hint of the area Galliard is heading for. Three months before he vanished Galliard had enquired after a guide who understood woodcraft and the Northern woods. He was recommended to hire Lew Frizel whose mother was a Cree Indian and his father one of the Hudson’s Bay factors. Further more Galliard had been doing some research on the Glaubstein pulp mill at Chateau-Gaillard where his ancestors first settled. With this information Leithen sets off up north with Lew’s brother Johnny, who is also a guide, in pursuit of what has now become two men.

When they arrive at the mill town, Leithen is appalled – The hillsides had been lumbered out and only scrub was left…..the near hillsides a hideous waste of slime, the colour of a slag-heap. And then come the co-incidences which are a feature of Buchan’s novels (But then he was a late Victorian writer when co-incidences were an accepted part of a novel). Leithen had been to this remote part of Canada thirty years ago. He remembers the beautiful valley with its picturesque farm before any mill was even planned. Now all the loveliness had been butchered to enable some shoddy newspaper to debauch the public soul (Is Buchan the first novelist to deplore the destruction of an isolated environment for the sake of industry?).
He looks for the lovely farm nestled in the valley and finds it occupied by non other than the uncle of the missing man! Augustin Gaillard confirms the men were here recently and had left on the way northward.
The rest of the novel describes the journey to the Sick Heart River and the return of all four men.
The river is in one of those secret valleys which are a feature of a Buchan tale. Francis Galliard is found close to starvation after being left to fend for himself. He is in despair having felt he should atone for making money in America by emulating his ancestors and exploring some of the unknown lands beyond Chateau-Gaillard. Later when Leithen meets Lew Frizel in the icy valley they discuss, among other things, The Pilgrim’s Progress (a favourite book of Buchan’s) and religion.
It seems that Lew has lost his will to live and has become frightened of the North. So here is a situation where a dying over 60 year old has to revive the spirits of two much younger and potentially fitter men! Not content with that, on his arrival back at the base camp Leithen takes on the task of reviving the vitality of a group of dying Indians who are incapable of helping themselves. This attempt to portray Leithen as a Christ figure seems so unreal considering the circumstances.
I think in this final section Buchan’s strong Christian beliefs have overridden his skill as a storyteller.

As to the geographical background it is authentic even though the North West Territories are located in the North East for dramatic puposes.
In 1937 Buchan, as Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, took a journey to the Arctic region and the Mackenzie River delta to experience the quality of light in the North and to confirm his view that the territories should be opened up as one of the unifying factors in Canada’s future.
 
Buchan had suffered from less than reasonable health almost half his life and finished the manuscript only months before his death in 1940. Consequently he never saw the publication of what was in effect his valedictory novel.
It’s possible to speculate on the reasons he wrote this one.
First he enjoyed writing. He always found time to write his fiction, non-fiction, poetry and short stories in a busy official life and this book completes the sequence of novels which began with The Power House. He mentions all the main characters he loved to write about over the years.
Or it could be his tribute to Canada and the pioneers who developed the country.
Or, knowing his health wasn’t good, he decided to keep a record of the feelings and thoughts he had as he coped with a busy schedule. Thus there are references to favourite Christian themes such as the battle between good and evil; the need for hard work and one’s duty to one’s fellow man; the concept of redemption through doing good or some other sort of atonement for past misdeeds; the stoicism to endure pain and illness.

But I still can’t say this is the best novel he ever wrote which is the opinion of Trevor Royle who wrote the introduction.
Mind you I must be in a minority because in the 1994 edition another scholar, David Daniell argued that it is a “seminal work of Canadian literature despite the fact that literary historians have ignored it”.
Before I read this novel I was more that happy to recommend the one I consider his best – now having been so disappointed by Sick Heart River I will have to re-read my choice before posting any words on the screen.
I can assure you The Thirty-nine Steps is not that book!

Historical Note – Buchan was the first writer to be ennobled in the 20th century though, like Lord Snow, I would think the peerage was awarded for public service.
priscilla-of-padua

Interesting stuff, Cas.

I recently bought JB's book on Julius Caesar and was  underwhelmed by its shallowness. I had been expecting something better because long ago I had enjoyed JB's novels. I also understood why my copy wa a first edition - I doubt there was a demand for reprints.

Maybe I shall do a reread of his other stuff to see if any of the old magic lingers; time tends to tarnish early impression.

Regards, P.
Castorboy

priscilla-of-padua wrote:

I recently bought JB's book on Julius Caesar and was  underwhelmed by its shallowness. I had been expecting something better because long ago I had enjoyed JB's novels. I also understood why my copy wa a first edition - I doubt there was a demand for reprints.
Maybe I shall do a reread of his other stuff to see if any of the old magic lingers; time tends to tarnish early impression.
Regards, P.

Of his four biographies Montrose is considered his best - it's one I haven't read so far. In fact I'm not a great reader of biogs. Love that bit of alliteration 'time tends to tarnish' Very Happy  In the case of my favourite novel I have the fear that time may have enhanced my opinion of it so that's why I have to do a re-read. I agree that JB can be a bit shallow in his novels. I would have thought for a biography he would have taken more care - perhaps he couldn't be bothered to do the research. Regards Cas
priscilla-of-padua

What I found lacking, Cas, in JB's Caesar was lack of opinion. How could one study JC without? Or at least discussion about the enigmatical nature of his actions. I must admit to reading more History than anything else now.

Regards, P.
Fiveowls

Thank you for your informative review, Castorboy.  It’s good to be reminded of John Buchan, whose books I devoured eagerly in my teens.  I enjoyed his ‘boys’ own’ adventures and the zest and style of Richard Hannay and friends.  I was particularly taken by John MacNab, loving its Highland setting and the exploits of the central character around, as far as I can remember, his responding to the challenge of poaching a prize salmon and a stag in its prime from a closely guarded shooting estate.  I strongly suspect I would now find it hard to suspend judgment in order to engage with Buchan’s ‘goodies’ versus ‘baddies’ themes.   Rolling Eyes
Castorboy

Fiveowls wrote:
 I was particularly taken by John MacNab, loving its Highland setting and the exploits of the central character around, as far as I can remember, his responding to the challenge of poaching a prize salmon and a stag in its prime from a closely guarded shooting estate.  I strongly suspect I would now find it hard to suspend judgment in order to engage with Buchan’s ‘goodies’ versus ‘baddies’ themes.   Rolling Eyes

Yes Fiveowls I agree with you about the goodies and baddies - Buchan saw characters very much in black and white terms although he tried at times to see the good side of his villains!
I am looking forward to reading Andrew Greig's The Return of John MacNab when our library obtains it.
Fiveowls

Thank you for that Castorboy.  I hadn't realized John MacNab had been revisited and having looked at some reviews on Amazon I can see that Andrew Greig's book is a must.
Fiveowls

Castorboy, some time ago you mentioned Andrew Greig's The Return of John Macnab and I wonder whether you have had the chance to read it since then.  With my memories of my teenage years and being gripped by Buchan's John Macnab I followed your tip and have just finished reading Greig's book.

It's a winner.  I loved its pace, its evocation of the Highlands and its people, the character development of the four central figures, and its spellbinding unraveling of a great adventure.

Lifting the story of John Macnab from its original historical setting and revisiting it in the late twentieth century is a great idea and Greig's descriptive powers carry this off superbly.  He clearly has great knowledge of the terrain and writes with sharp insight and compassion towards those who people its pages.  There is some delicious humour there, great suspense and an undercurrent of serious political issues relating to Scottish land tenure and the ups and downs of relationships between the four adventurers and their other attachments.

I strongly recommend it as a good read.  In fact, I read it during the past week while my wife had a holiday in the Highlands, so I made my visit north too.   Smile
Castorboy

Fiveowls wrote:
Castorboy, some time ago you mentioned Andrew Greig's The Return of John Macnab and I wonder whether you have had the chance to read it since then.

I have it on my TBR list but after your review it goes to the top! You have summed up perfectly what I like about Greig’s writing. I have read two of his novels which were different from each other except for describing parts of Scotland. He has a love of the country – not surprising really – which reminds me so much of Buchan’s writings.
There isn’t a review of TRoJM in the Greig Author topic so I’ll post a copy to it. Thanks for the response.
goldbug

39 steps.
someone recently said that the novel was
full of masonic symbology.
39 being a ... masonic type No.. ie
3x 13s....  wonder if  JB was a mason ?
Castorboy

Can’t say I have picked up any hints of freemasonry in the book- it just seems to be exactly what Buchan called it at the time “a ‘shocker’ where the incidents defy the probabilities and march just inside the borders of the possible”. For the films, the title is often abbreviated to The 39 Steps, but the full title is more commonly used for the book and for the 1978 film adaptation.
Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was recuperating from illness at a house called St Cuby, Cliff Promenade, Broadstairs. The original steps were demolished, and a part of them, complete with a brass plaque was sent to him. They were replaced by concrete, and this set of steps still runs from the garden to the beach.
Buchan's son, William, later wrote that the name of the book originated when the author's daughter, then about age six, was counting the stairs at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, where Buchan was convalescing. "There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach. My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced: there are 39 steps."

I would say it was extremely unlikely that he was a mason. His father had been a minister in the Free Church of Scotland and Buchan inherited a strong Christian ethic. He was an elder of churches in London and Oxford and twice lord high comissioner of the General Assembley of the Church of Scotland. His fictional heroes are fond of quoting from The Pilgrim’s Progress and believe in truth, fair play, even to the villains, and stoicism when suffering hardship.
"It's a great life, if you don't weaken" is a quotation famously attributed to him along with "No great cause is ever lost or won, The battle must always be renewed, And the creed must always be restated." I would think the creed would have to be the Christian creed of forgiveness and redemption through devotion and hard work.
goldbug

THANKS  for the info, but there is a sense of
mystery about the novel.... and the film !

Its a long time since I read it so I cant really
make any judgement, its just that
I heard a comment on the web that  39 steps was full of  masonic  reference.

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