Monday, June 11, 2007

Sick Heart River

Going through my books recently I happened on Sick Heart River, John Buchan's final book, written shortly before he died in 1940. This book is available to buy or read online.

John Buchan is best known as the author of the spy thriller Richard Hannay series. He also wrote Prester John, many biographies and other books. Buchan was a British politician and the Governor General of Canada from 1936 to 1940. He had been a correspondant and speech writer in WWI and it was with great reluctance that he signed the papers which entered Canada in WWII.

Buchan was the son of a Scottish minister and was himself later twice Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He was influential as a writer, politican and Christian and was greatly loved by those who knew him.

Sick Heart River is a dying man's last conversations with God. In this story Buchan's familiar hero, Leithen, undertakes a journey to northern Canada in search of an American businessman who has disappeared into the wilderness. After many adventures, worthy of such an author, Leithen finds the American. He realizes that this is not the end of the journey, but turns his attention to reflecting on the will to live. A nearby group of Hare Indians are dying of an epidemic. Leithen aids their village, saves lives, loses his own through ill health and overwork, but in the process experiences redemption. Buchan himself died shortly after writing this book.

Although there is much to admire in this book it is also fraught with conflict and rebellion against human frailty and mortality. Buchan contemplates Job,

    As he lay wakeful, scarcely conscious of the dull pain in his chestor of the spasms in his breathing, but desperately aware of hisweakness, he felt the shadow of eternity deepening over him. Like Job, the last calamities had come on him. Thank Heaven he was free from loquacious friends. Like Job he bowed his head and had no impulse to rebel. The majesty of God filled his universe. He was coming face to face with his religion.

    Like Job, he was abashed by the divine majesty and could put his face in the dust. It was the temper in which he wished to pass out of life. He asked for nothing--"nut in the husk, nor dawn in the dusk, nor life beyond death." He had already much more than his deserts! and what Omnipotence proposed to do with him was the business of Omnipotence; he was too sick and weary to dream or hope. He lay passive in all-potent hands.
and then rejects the lesson of Job.

    There had been a sense of his littleness and the omnipotence of God, and a resignation like Job's to the divine purpose. And then there had come a nobler mood, when he had been conscious not only of the greatness but of the mercy of God, and had realised the vein of tenderness in the hard rock of fate.
He will not submit to his circumstances but must triumph. He believes that God has given this to him. Leithen is empowered to reach out to his fellow man and give himself to them. The writing is powerful and comes directly from the heart of a man who knows that he himself is dying.

On a more disturbing level, one must consider the role which Leithen takes as he steps in to organize and rehabilitate the demoralized Indian village. Instead of writing of the white man as the cause of the epidemic, Buchan paints Leithen as saviour, although at the same time experiencing his own redemption. Buchan writes,

    And yet . . . As Leithen brooded in the flicker of the firelight before he fell asleep he came to have a different picture. He saw the Indians as tenuous growths, fungi which had no hold on the soil. They existed in sufferance; the North had only to tighten its grip and they would disappear. Lew and Johnny, too. They were not mushrooms, for they had roots and they had the power to yield under strain and spring back again, but were they any better than grassy filaments which swayed in the wind but might any day be pinched out of existence? Johnny was steadfast enough, but only because he had a formal and sluggish mind; the quicker, abler Lew could be unsettled by his dreams. They, too, lived on sufferance. . . . And Galliard? He had deeper roots, but they were not healthy enough to permit transplanting. Compared to his companions Leithen suddenly saw himself founded solidly like an oak. He was drawing life from deep sources. Death, if it came, was no blind trick of fate, but a thing accepted and therefore mastered. He fell asleep in a new mood of confidence.
So in this one book we can celebrate both the human opening himself up to God, and at the same time, the hero Leithen offering his superior British cultural heritage as a remedy for the disease and misfortune of others. It is significant as it represents the dying thoughts of a leading and influential British statesman going into WWII. The war has begun as Buchan writes and he reflects on the news in this novel.

Buchan is revered as a great man and I don't intend to tear that down. In fact, I don't find Buchan's attitudes out of line with the way others were writing in the 1930's. But we must also look into our heritage and be willing to see the vein of self-worship and incipient racism, and be critical of the ways that we defend our own traditions.

I recommend this book as a representative conversation with God. However, I intend to write next about another man who encountered Buchan in the north, a man who actually lived his life among the native people of northern Canada and left us his autobiography.

Archibald Fleming, a contemporary of Buchan, was able to reflect on and reject the racism of his own era. His book represents the flip side of the racism of the 1930's, the thoughtful reaction of a sensitive and honest Christian leader. If Buchan's book presents the problem of racism within oneself, then Fleming's book reminds us that there is another way to live.


Iyov said...

Fascinating. I have some thoughts here and here.

I hope this is a start of a longer series, Suzanne.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

I had thought of only two posts - one for Buchan and one for Fleming but the material is much too interesting to be dealt with so summarily.