Scottish author John Buchan (1875-1940) was a Unionist politician, a Member of Parliament for Scottish Universities and a Governor General of Canada. While his career flourished in diplomacy, Buchan used this time to simultaneously focus on his literary work. His critically acclaimed novel, “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, was published in 1915 and adapted for cinema in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock. My first introduction to Buchan is his last published work, “Sick Heart River”, which was titled “Mountain Meadow” in the US. It was released in 1941 posthumously and bears a striking resemblance to Buchan's personal life.
Like Buchan, the book's protagonist is Scottish-born attorney Edward Leithen, a member of parliament and a seasoned diplomat. Leithen is diagnosed with Tuberculosis, a devastating disease that decimated Europe and the Americas during the 1800s. Refusing to enter a sanatorium for treatment (which typically resulted in a 50% morality rate), Leithen has premonitions of dying in the wilderness, specifically a meadow in upper Quebec that he fondly remembers from his travels. Coincidentally, a longtime friend asks Leithen to assist in locating a man named Galliard who has abruptly abandoned his prosperous business career for a remote section of Canada.
After learning more about the man's past and the wife he's left behind, Leithen decides that he wants to accomplish one final job while allowing the forces of nature to bring his demise. Partnering with Hare Indians (natives of Canada) and a tracker named Lew, the group embarks on a journey through upper Canada and into the outer regions of the Arctic Circle. On the quest, the group discovers that Galliard has joined Lew's brother in a stretch of wasteland called Sick Heart River.
Leithen's background in Canada, notably the Quebec region, pairs well with the Buchan's own experiences. Saddling Leithen with a chronic condition and placing him in the author's footsteps appears to foreshadow Buchan's own unfortunate death in 1940. But unlike Leithen, Buchan's death was the result of an accident. How did he write this mortality tale with so much authenticity? I don't know. But what I can tell you is that this novel was probably intended for a much different reader than myself.
“Sick Heart River” is a book weighted with deep philosophy and a euphoric sense of nature and its surroundings. I would imagine that at the time of release, readers probably knew what to expect from this talented author. My confusion lies in the bizarre marketing scheme created by Pyramid Books in 1968. Utilizing the original US title of “Mountain Meadow”, the publisher featured the painted cover (pictured) that showcases the novel as an adventure story with the intriguing invitation of “A bizarre manhunt becomes a trek into terror.” It's a clear attempt to capture men's action-adventure enthusiasts under a false pretense. The back cover synopsis adds fuel to the fire: “...pitted the strength of his body against the hellish frozen world and the even more hellish violence of man.” Pyramid was attempting to create everything from nothing.
If you are in search of a great wilderness adventure tale involving a manhunt, track down “Duel in the Snow” by Hans-Otto Meissner. It's far superior to this watered down story. “Mountain Meadow” is nothing more than a dying man's journey into the wilderness and his reflections on life, nature and morality. It is written well, but unfortunately it’s also a plodding and dull work that left me counting down the pages.
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