The Last Canadian by William C. Heine ~ 1974. This edition: Pocket Books, 1975, paperback. ISBN: 671-78753-8. 253 pages.
My rating: Oh, dear. Maybe a 2/10? But I did read it from beginning to end, so that argues for a certain mesmerizing appeal. After a certain amount of inner argument, here’s the final verdict: 5/10. Because something so strangely bad adds variety to one’s reading life, and Mr. Heine shows vast enthusiasm for his plaguey topic, even if he’s a bit unreliable on his science. And he’s occasionally very funny, though I’m not quite sure if that was by intention or merely happy accident.
Where to start?
Brian Busby and Grady Hendrix have both written gloriously gloves-off reviews on this well-forgotten* 1970s’ sci-fi-ish thriller, and they’ve pretty well said everything I’d like to say, so I’ll just give you my own (probably rambling) overview, then refer you over to them. Perhaps their reviews are best appreciated after reading the novel itself, but, on the other hand, you might find the book less of an awful shock if going into it forewarned.
Here’s the deal.
Ex-US air force pilot Eugene (Gene) Arnprior is now working as an engineer up in Canada. He likes it there in Montreal quite a lot, and has just received his naturalization papers, the day before everything goes to pieces.
Uncannily fast-thinking and forward-planning, Gene twigs immediately to the fact that something really, really bad is brewing when he hears radio reports of a cluster of mysterious deaths in rural Colorado. The ring of death expands from the centre, rippling outward like the waves created from an emerging underwater volcano, but well before it reaches Montreal, Gene is airborne in his company’s small plane, heading up to a remote northern Quebec fishing camp with his wife and two young sons. A lightning-fast shopping trip has provided the family with all of the supplies they’ll need for a prolonged retreat from the world – golly – I wish my shopping chores were as efficient as our Gene’s – he outfits a family of four with all wilderness survival needs in 40 minutes(!) – yesterday I took longer than this to pick up a few bags of groceries, but I digress – anyway, this guy is organized.
So – Gene and family are safely ensconced in the Quebec woods, in a remote fishing camp which is conveniently stocked with canned good, fuel, and lots and lots of guns and ammo. They pass their time in hunting the various wild critters, making flour substitute from cattail roots – “In a little while they had collected fifty pounds” – whoa – akin to the 40-minute shopping trip – if I didn’t already loathe Gene deeply – the wife-beater! (reference to an incident early on) – this would have done it -learning how to whittle, and, in the case of Gene and his lovely wife Jan, having lots and lots of enthusiastic sex. (Hopefully when the boys are out setting their bunny snares, I found myself thinking.)
Three years go by. La, la, la, la…but who is this coming across the lake? Oh, no – an Indian in a canoe! An alive person is bad, bad news – he has to be a plague carrier – yup – he is – and Gene keels over, as do Jan and the lads, felled by the virulent virus while the paddler is still well out on the lake. Some time later, Gene comes to, to find his little family stiff and cold, and himself now a “carrier”.
After burying his family, Gene fires up the airplane and heads back south, to investigate what’s going on in the rest of North America, now that he’s immune to the killer disease.
Various encounters with other survivors ensue, some ending badly for those underestimating Gene’s amazing foresight and lightning fast trigger finger. He picks up another female partner and proceeds to have lots and lots of enthusiastic sex, until an encounter with evil Russians results in her sudden demise.
Oh yes. There are evil Russians here and there, advance troops spying out the countryside for eventual full-scale invasion, because an America without people is a fantastic land-and-natural-resource jackpot for the greedy Soviets. Interestingly, the Russians seem to be ignoring the also-population-decimated Canada in their explorations, which I thought rather odd, seeing as it is also chock full of natural resources, closer to The Homeland, and much less likely to contain plague survivors. (If there is a certain percentage of natural immunity, wouldn’t that mean that Canada would only have ten percent of the number of roaming survivors as the USA has, based on pre-plague population numbers?)
But the Russians aren’t immune to the disease, as we find out when Gene stumbles onto a Soviet expedition, and, after failing to kill our hero with a barrage of gunfire and missiles(!), every man jack of the Russky battalion suddenly dies.
So Gene starts putting two and two together, and decides that the plague must have come from Russia, part of an evil takeover plot. And by golly, he’s right!
Lots of intrigue, lots of gunfire, the occasional nuclear warhead being detonated (goodbye Denver, Colorado!), the last-few-chapters introduction of a whole new array of characters – British and Russian scientists playing who’s-got-the-killer-virus games – and lots and lots of people dying. Good people, bad people, random in-between people. But Gene keeps plugging along, now single-mindedly focussed on carrying out a single-man invasion of Russia, to infect the population there as revenge for all that’s gone before.
How will it all end?!
Spoilers coming. Look away now if you’re honestly planning on reading this thing without knowing the final plot twist.
Okay, here it is.
The British have suddenly developed a successful vaccine (never mind the pesky details of how – which bugs me, because I was really curious) and the evil Russian government has suddenly been taken over by a more-cooperative bunch of politicos and the two countries – England and Russia – plus the surviving Americans (the President is in England, and there have been warships cruising the seas for the past three years carrying key US military and political personnel) plus China(!) all decide, in what must be the world’s fastest-ever international cooperative effort, to vaporize Gene, who has managed to evade all efforts to intercept him and has flown one final small plane across the Bering Strait and has now set foot on Russian soil.
Goodbye, Anadyr basin, and everything and everybody living there. Twenty-two missiles should do it. Nice try, Gene.
But hey, it was an exciting time to be alive. (Direct quote, last page, four paragraphs from the end. Here, see for yourself.)
Wrapping things up, no need to get into boring detail!
If you’ve made it to here, you MUST go further.
Check out what these other readers thought:
Brian Busby tells it like it is at The Dusty Bookcase
Grady Hendrix is clever and cutting.
So who the heck was William C. Heine?
Here we go:
Everybody needs a hobby.
*Well-forgotten except by a cult following within the “survivalist” community, where it is apparently viewed as a classic bit of prognostic fiction and a useful how-to manual. Paperback copies of The Last Canadian (alternatively titled The Last American, and Death Wind) are listed on ABE starting at $20 and heading into the thousands. (Did this ever come out in hardcover? Methinks not.)
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