It’s nice to see a master story teller at work. Most people know John Buchan from his famous spy thriller The 39 Steps and, until Sick Heart River, I’d only read that. This is his last novel, drawn from Buchan’s impressions of his journey in 1937 to the Far North of Canada, and the last of his character Edward Leithen. It’s a haunting and uplifting book that really got me thinking.
At surface level, it’s a frontiersman exploration drama. Leithen is a mid-fifties high-ranking Member of the British Parliament who is persuaded to visit New York on the down-low to investigate the sudden disappearance of one Francis Gallaird, a key industrialist and political mover. Set in 1939 just before the outbreak of war, Leithen canvasses Gallaird’s friends and family until he guesses the man had struck out into the Canadian hinterlands where he’d grown up as a young lad. From here, Leithen and Buchan leave civilisation behind as the Brit engages a half-Indian trapper called Johnny and attempts to follow Gallaird’s trail, overtake him, and persuade him to return.
That’s the surface level, which doesn’t really matter. This book is all about allegory, redemption, and man vs nature. Let’s talk about that.
Leithen accepted the commission because he’d been diagnosed with tuberculosis and given less than a year to live. Unmarried and with no children, he felt like his constant statesmanship and lawyering in London had grown stale. His health already failing badly he wished to “die in his boots” and jumped at the chance for a challenge away from his comfortable haunts. For the first half of the book Leithen has accepted death and seeks only to show stoic resistance in meeting it. His long trek through the snowy wastes is a slog taken one step at a time, deep in introspection.
The oppressive overbearing Canadian North hangs heavily over the book and against that weight, Leithen and his guide Johnny form a strong bond. It turns out Gallaird had hired Johnny’s more talented brother Lew as his own guide, so Johnny begins building up the latter’s character much like Colonel Kurtz in Heart Of Darkness as they themselves disappear ever further into an uncharted and uncompromising wilderness. They realise Gallaird and Lew have gone off looking for the mythical Sick Heart River, a place never touched by humanity but given a legend of its healing properties. It exists in the book at first as a phantasm, like Prester John’s kingdom.
The book is focused primarily on Leithen’s mind as his attitudes change over the course of his trek. Pushed to the limit his body begins to respond favourably to the clean air, harsh cold, and fresh meat. The North infiltrates his mind and he is pleasantly surprised to find meaning in his trek and his soul is reclaimed. By the final third, Sick Heart River has became an allegory for finding God through trials, tribulation, and service to the good of others. It sounds hokey when summarised like that but, believe me, as Buchan writes it is extremely compelling. For example, here is a short section when Leithen’s has relapsed towards the end of the journey:
For a little while Lew did not speak.
“You’re not going to die,” he said fiercely.
“The best authorities in the world have told me that I haven’t the ghost of a chance.”
“They’re wrong, and by God we’ll prove them wrong!” The blue eyes had a frosty sternness.
“Promise me, anyhow. Promise that you’ll see Gallaird back among his friends. You could get him out, even in winter?”
“Yeah. We can get a dog-team from the Hares’ camp if he isn’t fit for the trail. And once at Fort Bannerman we can send word to Edmonton for a plane…. If it’s to do you any good I promise to plant the feller back where he belongs. But you’ve got to take count of one thing. He must be cured right here in the bush. If he isn’t cured before he goes out he’ll never be cured. It’s only the North can mend what the North breaks.”
Next day Leithen collapsed utterly, for the strength went from his legs, and his difficult breathing became almost suffocation. The business of filling the lungs with air became for him a desperate enterprise where every moment brought the terror of failure. He felt every part of his decrepit frame involved, not lungs and larynx only, but every muscle and nerve from his brain to his feet. The combined effort of all that was left of him to feed the dying fires of life. A rough sledge was made and Lew and the Hare dragged him laboriously through the drifts.
I found myself thinking Sick Heart River could easily be re-read as a parable for Euro Jaunt daygame. There’s a man who is dissatisfied with civilised metropolitan life despite achieving good recognition from his peers in his profession. He’s missing something and wishes to be closer to the coal-face of life. So he sets off on a commission overseas, to a far-off land where several adventurers barely known to him have preceeded him. He then attempts to pick up the trail  and blunder into the wilderness. At each step further – at each set – he encounters harsh environmental resistance and blowouts that test his resolve. He puts one foot in front of the other and stoically endures the pain with only his fellow for comfort. After weeks together in a harsh land they feel their bodies respond and their moods lighten. They are living life closer to how nature intended and discovering much about themselves when faced with adversity. I’d go on, but I don’t wish to spoilt the plot – this book is a great read and it’s much better if it maintains the element of the unknown in those snowy wastes.
It’s often a beautiful book too. If you liked the DiCaprio movie The Revenant you know the kind of scenery we’re dealing with
Out of the encumbered river by way of easy rapids the boat ran into reaches which were like a Scottish salmon stream on a big scale, long pools each with a riffle at its head. The valley altered its character, becoming narrower and grassier, with the forest only in patches on frequent promontories. The weather, too, changed. The nights were cold, and a chill crept into even the noontide sunshine. But it was immensely invigorating… The air had a quality which he was unable to describe, and the scents were not less baffling. They were tonic and yet oddly sedative, for they moved the blood rather to quiescence than to action.
But the biggest change was in Leithen’s outlook. The gloomy apathy of the Oblate’s presbytery disappeared, and its place was taken by a mood which was almost peace. The mountains were no longer untidy rock heaps, but the world which he had loved long ago, that happy upper world of birds and clouds and the last magic of sunset. He picked out ways of ascent by their ridges and gullies, and found himself noting with interest the riot of colour in the woods… Black bears were plentiful, revelling among the berries or wetting their new winter coats in the river’s shallows, and he saw a big grizzly limbering across a stone shoot… Leithen had a sense of infinite space around him. He seemed to breathe more freely, and the chill of the night air refreshed him, for frost crisped the lake’s edges. He fell asleep as soon as he got under his blankets.
That sounds just like me on the streets when in my Daygame Infinite mood, don’t it? Leithen’s trekking has a similar salutary effect on his mind, curing his ills.
He awoke after midnight to see above him a wonderful sky of stars, still shot with the vagrant shifts of the aurora. Suddenly he felt acutely his weakness, but with no regret in his mind, and indeed almost with comfort. He had been right in doing as he had done, coming out to meet death in a world where death and life were colleagues and not foes. He felt that in this strange place he was passing, while still in time, inside the bounds of eternity. He was learning to know himself, and with that might come the knowledge of God.
Well, excepting that God bit at the end I think many a practised Euro Jaunter will see what I’m getting at. Walking the streets of Kiev and Riga aren’t as dangerous as the Canadian North in winter, but I think we can all relate to the numbing and yet clarifying effect such treks have on our minds. It’s a funny old world.
If you’d rather dispense with the allegories and proceed directly to the shagging, consider my textbooks Daygame Mastery and Daygame Infinite, and my video instructional guide Daygame Overkill. All the information is on this page.
 Perhaps aided by Balls Deep, Daygame Mastery and daygametrip.com