The first book I picked out of our new Book Nook collection was the 1974 thriller The Last Canadian, the first novel by journalist William C. Heine.
“TERRIFYING!” states the cover.
After the first few chapters, I felt that description was apt.
But after I’d finished the last page, I was left feeling like I had been taken on a dark ride, and I didn’t know whether key moments were real gruesome figures or only shadows in my own mind.
(There aren’t too many spoilers ahead. A couple, but none big and nothing I would think takes away from the suspense.)
The plot follows American-turned-Canadian Gene Arnprior who survives a swift plague that wipes out the human populations in the Americas.
The book — which was published in the United States as both Death Wind and The Last American — opens with the initial stages of the disease spreading.
Page 16 has Arnprior hitting his wife Jan and threatening to do it again if she doesn’t listen to him (spoiler alert: she obediently listens).
From there, the book continues following Arnprior. It also observes international actors trying to prevent the spread of the plague while maintaining the upper hand against other major powers.
This book was released while the Cold War was in the détente period, but would have been written in the years as it was just starting. This comes across in the language and the portrayals of the people, which lean lightly on stereotypes of the evil Soviet supporters.
My biggest problem with the book is its unhealthy portrayal of women.
The marriage of Gene and Jan isn’t exactly a partnership. At one point, she makes a suggestion, and “he silently kicked himself several times for not having thought of it himself.”
None of the major political leaders are women, and when women are introduced, the narrator only really includes whether Gene wants to have sex with them.
I could allow that this book came out at a different time, in 1974, when society was different.
But Heine was a journalist. The editor-in-chief of the London Free Press, in fact.
According to the obituary published in The Windsor Star, the William C. Heine Award of Excellence was established in 1987, and the man was named to the alumni honor roll at the University of Western Ontario’s graduate school of journalism four days before he passed away in 1991. He also established the William C. Heine Fellowship for International Media Studies, according to Wikipedia.
If I had been born a few decades earlier, he could have been my boss. There were indeed women working at Canadian newspapers.
He was a respected journalist who would have been in charge of hiring and firing in his office, every day creating and shaping the stories that became the first draft of history.
And his book doesn’t have one solid female character in it.
That all said, the book is well-researched. The writing is good, the plot is solid, the social commentary tends to be plucking and the characters — however one-dimensional — are realistic.
The novel has some brilliant aviation scenes. As a budding glider pilot and an aspiring power pilot myself, I eagerly dove into the accurate descriptions of flight. I wasn’t surprised when I read in Heine’s obituary that he had served with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a flying instructor during the Second World War.
Moreover, though the book doesn’t use current language to do it, The Last Canadian does touch on post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects on people regardless of gender, age, profession or background.
And this is where my opening bit about the shadows in my mind comes in. Was the book’s portrayal of women and subservience to men used to reinforce this element? Am I just trying to justify bad actions? These are the perennial questions.
Overall, I don’t think this isn’t a bad book. I actually enjoyed it, for the most part.
But am I allowed to enjoy it, if I think it’s sexist?
As as sidenote, in 1998, The Patriot came out. This is purportedly the movie “adaptation” of the book. No, not The Patriot with Mel Gibson. This is the straight-to-video flick with Steven Seagal.
Though it lists The Last Canadian as its source material, the movie bears absolutely no similarity to the book. Not the characters. Not the places. Not the plots nor the messages.
So if you’re looking for a good book-movie combo where you want to be held in suspense through both, this pair might be for you. (Spoiler alert: Steve Seagal doesn’t hit any women in the movie.)