William C. Heine’s 1974 The Last Canadian is a post-apocalyptic thriller.
Having cannily predicted business opportunities for an American versed in Canadian ways, Eugene “Gene” Arnprior transformed himself into the ideal candidate for his company’s expansion into Canada. A naturalized citizen resident in Montreal, Gene and his family can reasonably expect to enjoy a pleasant, if Canadian, life.
Pity about the end of the world.
Gene has a keenly honed instinct for self-preservation. As soon as he hears news reports of a novel, highly communicable, extremely lethal disease in the American West, he wastes no time in bundling his family (self, wife, and two sons) off to an isolated fishing camp deep in Quebec’s wilds. There they will be able to wait out the crisis.
American and Canadian efforts to contain the plague are prompt, decisive, and ineffectual. There is no way to keep people from fleeing in cars and planes; in their wake, the plague spreads with nightmarish rapidity across North and South America. Within a week the population of the New World drops from half a billion to a few thousand people. The Old World survives primarily because the disease kills faster than the time needed to cross oceans, which makes quarantine possible.
Most of the survivors are naturally resistant to the plague. A few owe their survival to isolation, a protection that lasts only as long as it takes one of the resistant carriers to wander within a mile of them. A passing First Nations hunter transmits the disease to Gene’s family. Gene turns out to be naturally immune. Wife and sons? Not at all.
After burying his family, Gene ventures south, looking for other survivors. He finds a few but never encounters a community that he likes. Dissatisfied, he continues south into what was once the USA, a trip that will bring him into direct conflict with the Soviet Union.
The Russians did not spread the plague on purpose: it was due to a single mad Russian scientist working in their biowarfare program. But they have been swift (in their brutal-enemies-of all-freedom, inherently-corrupt-and-malevolent commie1 way) to try to exploit the situation. In the Old World, they have been stymied because the Americans handed their surviving military forces over to Britain. Perhaps their plans to commandeer America’s resources will go better.
When Gene cruises by a secret Russian base, the Russians’ first instinct is to try to kill Gene. Then they all die, having the ill-fortune to be downwind of Gene. After determining that his would-be killers were Russians, it occurs to Gene to wonder what means the Russians might employ to conceal their presence in the New World. Fleeing immediately, he is sufficiently distant when the Russian nuclear device detonates.
This sets a pattern. Gene continues exploring America. Whenever Russians notice him, they try and fail to murder him. Gene invariably survives. Companions he makes along the way invariably die. While Russia’s efforts to murder a man who knows too much are as unsuccessful as their attempts to rule (bwah ha ha) the world, they do manage to vex Gene considerably.
If the Russians insist on trying to kill him, then Gene sees no alternative but to return the favour. The grief-maddened Canadian heads north, where the narrow Bering Strait will give him easy access to Russia and vengeance. Russia will try to stop Gene but if there is one thing Gene is very, very good at, it is surviving.
A clarification: Gene is the last Canadian not in the sense of being the last living Canadian; it’s just that his was the final naturalization application processed before civilization collapsed. When this book was published south of the border, the title was changed to The Last American. While this title might be more appealing to Americans, it’s much less accurate than the original title2.
This book was a product of an era when Canada was trying to establish Canadian arts and entertainment as appealing and respectable. The book was hard to avoid, at least in Canada. Bookstores stocked it and so did school libraries. Every school I attended after its publication had at least one copy of The Last Canadian.
William C. Heine isn’t just the author of a thriller. As his Wikipedia entry relates,
Not a bad background for someone trying to establish the oxymoronic “Canadian thriller” genre. However, Heine seems to have preferred non-fiction to fiction, leaving the field to such luminaries as Richard Rohmer.
Historical significance aside, The Last Canadian may deserve its obscurity. The prose is, uh, grammatically correct. The international machinations are rather cartoonish. Various characters delight in delivering bombastic, scenery-chewing Why-You-Suck lectures to the Russian villains, although in their defense at least some of that is to distract Russian leader Ilya Sulorin long enough for a rival to take control of Russia.
Still, there are some high notes. The sections detailing the challenges inherent in surviving in the Canadian wilderness (even given a handy fishing camp) seem informed by personal experience. Come for the swarms of blackflies, stay for the lack of medical care in the face of accidental injuries. As well, one cannot fault Gene’s capacity for survival: over the course of the novel twenty-four nuclear weapons are deployed against him.
The Last Canadian is out of print. Used copies purchased online can run as much as $1,200.00 for some reason. I’m guessing your friendly neighborhood used bookstore will have cheaper copies… if they have it at all.
1: The book takes a very negative view of Russian communism. China is viewed more favourably, or at least less negatively, because for all its faults China’s Communism is seen as having improved the Chinese quality of life. A bold thesis in 1974.
2: Apparently Steven Seagal’s The Patriot is very, very, very loosely based on The Last Canadian.