Sick Heart River / Mountain Meadow

Sick Heart River is John Buchan’s most powerful novel, his last, published posthumously in 1941. It is powerful in the way it strikes to the heart of our existence. Sick Heart River is about redemption and one man’s re-discovery of God’s mercy. It is knowledgeably rich in its description of the Canadian north and suspenseful in the challenge of human beings against an unforgiving northern winter. The main theme is also stitched with some wonderful commentaries on modern society that ring relevant today, surprisingly so given they were written over 60 years ago, for example: the American ‘national industry is really the movies’; and, referring to the forests and the needs of the pulp and paper industry, ‘[n]ow all the loveliness had been butchered to enable some shoddy newspaper to debauch the public soul’.
The main character, the lawyer Sir Edward Leithen, is familiar to Buchan readers. However, unlike earlier novels in which Leithen appears, this one is not a gripping adventure where the heroes thwart some sinister plot. Rather, it seems almost contemporary for us in its focus on deep personal struggles.
The story starts with Leithen in familiar London surroundings. He is diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis and given a year to live, forcing him to ponder how he will spend his remaining days. A ‘mission’ presents itself through a former colleague in high adventure. The American, John S. Blenkiron, requests help to find his niece’s husband, who has ‘just leaked out of the landscape’, from his very successful financial career in New York. Francis Galliard’s flight to the Canadian north is caused by his confused mental state, an identity, and spiritual, crisis stemming from a conflict between his French-Canadian roots and his adopted New York world. Leithen travels to New York to gather information from Galliard’s wife and friends, then to the region in Quebec where Galliard’s family is from. There, he finds the peaceful ‘mountain meadow’ (title of the novel’s US edition) he had seen on a trip thirty years earlier and which has stayed in his memory since. It is not unlike a mystic place in the North that haunts a guide, Lew Frizel, whom Galliard hired and which the two, in their madness, struggle to find: the Sick Heart River.
The fictional Sick Heart River is in the real region of the Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It is in some of the most rugged terrain in Canada. The area was only just being mapped when Buchan, as Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir, passed nearby during his voyage down the Mackenzie River in the summer of 1937. Having heard much about the mysterious South Nahanni, Buchan was fascinated by it and wanted to go there, but did not make it before he died in February, 1940.
Sir Edward and his guide, Johnny Frizel, Lew’s brother, are accompanied by two men from the Hare tribe of the Dené people. They find both Galliard and Lew Frizel, who recover from their respective madnesses. Leithen seems to recover some of his health and then discovers a final task. The Hare tribe have been demoralized and decimated by ‘a pestilence of the mind’ and tuberculosis. Leithen remains with them to help restore their health, shed their depression and regain their desire to live, knowing this is where his life will end. After his death, Galliard recalls an Oblate Missionary’s words about Leithen: ‘he knew that he would die; but he knew also that he would live’. It is an echo of Galliard’s own words earlier: ‘I had forgotten God and had to find him… We have each of us to travel to his own Sick Heart River’.
William Galbraith, 2001

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