The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Englishman’s Boy is a 1997 work by Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe, addressing issues relating to the settlement of the American and Canadian West and the myths it gave rise to. The novel follows two narrative strands: one in 1873, the other (narrated restrospectively in 1953) 50 years later in 1923 Hollywood. It is a novel of history, myth, and the role of both in shaping nations. Vanderhaeghe here deals in new territories, geographic and psychological, including the new territory of film, a medium with a profoundly democratic appeal and with an ability to create a new type of narrative – a new mythology.

The novel opens in my view fairly weakly, with two Indian horse thieves (one almost stereotypically wise compared to the white men he steals from) taking twenty horses from a group of sleeping men. The scene itself is well painted, Vanderhaeghe is a master at describing cold landscapes, the still of the night, but the patient Indian essentially horse-whispering while the oblivious Whites slept for me bordered on cliche.

Vanderhaeghe then surprised me, moving briefly into 1953 and then back to 1923, as follows:

I typed four names. Damon Ira Chance. Denis Fitzimmons. Rachel Gold. Shorty McAdoo. I sat and stared at their names for some minutes, then I typed a fifth, my own. Harry Vincent.
I did not know how to continue. It’s true that once I was a writer of a sort, but for thirty years I’ve written nothing longer than a grocery list, a letter. I went to the window. From there I could see the South Saskatchewan River, the frozen jigsaw pieces bumping sluggishly downstream, the cold, black water streaming between them. A month ago, when the ice still held, a stranger to this city would have had no idea which way the river ran. But now, the movement of the knotted ice, of the swirling debris, makes it plain.
So begin, I told myself.

History is calling it a day. Roman legionaries tramp the street accompanied by Joseph and Mary, while a hired nurse in uniform totes the Baby Jesus. Ladies-in-waiting from the court of the Virgin Queen trail the Holy Family, tits cinched flat under Elizabethan bodices sheer as the face of a cliff. A flock of parrot-plumed Aztecs are hard on their heels. Last of all, three frostbitten veterans of Valley Forge drag flintlocks on the asphalt roadway.

This is bravura stuff. We have the cast introduced, the five central characters who will drive the 1923 narrative. We have the imagery of the cold, the ice, we know that whatever happens in 1923 it will not end well for Harry, his amibitions of becoming a screenwriter (rather than a mere title-card writer) will end with him no longer being a writer at all. So too we have myth and history, the extras leaving the lot, a mishmash of dreams of what was. Many of the novel’s key themes are right there, in those two short paragraphs.

Vincent is called before studio boss Chance, an unprecedented interview given Chance’s reclusivity and Vincent’s junior status. We learn that Chance wants to make a new sort of film, to create a new American myth, and that to do so he wants access to the memories of an aged extra who was there in the Old West and who lived the truth Chance wants on celluloid. Chance sends Vincent to track down that old extra, Shorty McAdoo, but McAdoo’s experiences ended in tragedy and horror and he has no wish to revist those times or see his memories turned into fiction.

On the way to all this, however, Vanderhaeghe mixes his undoubted talent for description with several pages of blatant infodumping. It is explained who Fatty Arbuckle was and what happened to him, so showing the fickle nature of fame in early Hollywood. There is more than than two consecutive pages describing the life and work of the hugely influential director DW Griffith, a section which opens with the to me mystifying remark that “I don’t suspect the name [Griffith] means much to anyone now, except the most avid film buffs.” Vanderhaeghe simply spends too long lecturing the reader here for my tastes, after the first 30 pages or so this thankfully ceases and Vanderhaeghe instead trusts his own considerable talents to communicate the period to us, organically, within the writing.

The 1923 chapters alternate with the 1873 chapters, which tell the tale of the eponymous Englishman’s Boy – a young man who has found service in the pay of an English big game hunter and who on that man’s death joins a party of men tracking the Indian horse thieves. The expedition heads North, over the border into Canada and into lands to which no law extends, the “Whoop-Up Country” as it was apparently known, populaced by Indians, traders, outlaws and half-breeds. From the interviews with McAdoo in 1923, and from the nature of the men on the expedition, we know that like the career of Harry Vincent this will not end well.

Unusually, both storylines are equally interesting and entertaining. Vincent’s search for McAdoo, their strained interviews, Chance’s dream of being the next (but greater) Griffith and of uniting America through the medium of film, this is fascinating stuff. So too is the expedition the Englishman’s boy joins, led by the vicious Hardwick and with its own cast of colourful yet credible hard men of the Old West. The expedition travels through harsh conditions and landscape, fording rivers, dealing with natives and its own internal tensions. Vanderhaeghe conjures up the vast and empty landscape, the small band crossing it, with real skill.

Part of what Vanderhaeghe is bringing out of course, with these two doomed enterprises (and of course we know that no great Western movie did create a new American myth), is the youth of America. The 1873 expedition, alone in all that emptiness, is just fifty years before the bustling new Hollywood of 1923 in which the rules of a new art are being created on an almost daily basis. 1953, when the novel is ostensibly written, is itself within the lifetime of a man who met and talked with a member of that expedition. The timeframes are brief, the transformation of America huge, it is a country with a past so recent it is almost yesterday.

For Damon Ira Chance, this lack of history is a challenge, a call to arms. America is too young, too new, to be a real nation. It lacks myth. It lacks a voice of its own. In cinema, the aptly named Chance sees an opportunity to change that. Here Chance speaks to Vincent of his first time seeing a movie, and his sudden understanding of the power of this new medium:

When I left that nickelodeon, I took something important away with me. The knowledge that the new century was going to be a century governed by images, that the spirit of the age would express itself in an endless train of images, one following upon the other with the speed of the steam locomotive that was the darling of the last century and symbolised all its aspirations.

America is not the only nation without yet a true identity of its own. Canada too is in question. It’s history equally short, it’s voice equally unfound and cinema is America’s answer, not Canada’s. Here Vincent explains to his best friend, Jewish head writer Rachel Gold, why he is working for Chance and why he believes in his project of the Great American Film:

‘… Immigrants can’t read English. Whitman is for the elite. But everybody goes to the movies. It’s the movies that have the chance of making everybody – the immigrant, the backwoods Kentuckian, the New York cab driver, maybe even the Ivy League Professor – all feel the same thing, feel what it means to be an American. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are all very well, but constitutions make states, they don’t make a people.’
“And you’re a Canadian Harry. So why is a Canadian so concerned about teaching Americans how to be American?’
‘Because I chose this place. And I’m not the only one in Hollywood. America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, was born in Toronto; Louis B. Mayer came from Saint John, New Brunswick; Mack Sennett was raised in Quebec. Canada isn’t a country at all, it’s simply geography. There’s no emotion there, not the kind that Chance is talking about. There are no Whitmans, no Twains, no Cranes. Half the English Canadians wish they were really English, and the other half wish they were Americans….’

In both countries, the frontier has been conquered, but the countries built on it remain unfinished. Vincent is sucked into Chance’s vision, wants to be part of it. He looks to Chance, his larger and more colourful acquaintance, as a man who can lend purpose to his own lack of direction. Chance sees Vincent as a fellow spirit, offers him the chance to write the new movie’s script, takes him into his confidence.

Both stories progress in many ways as one would expect, I will not go into plot here but it is hardly a spoiler to say that Vincent discovers that Chance may not be wholly rational, that his vision of America may not ultimately be one that Vincent will want to be part of, that the truth learnt from McAdoo may not be what Chance wishes it to be. Similarly, the expedition of which the Englishman’s boy is part is not one that is likely to return successfully with the guilty punished and the innocent spared. History at the end it is simply what happens, myth what we tell ourselves about it afterwards.

The Englishman’s Boy is not a flawless novel. The early infodumps, the depictions of Indians in the few scenes where they have their own narrative voice (one scene even implies an ability to see the future in dreams, though thankfully it does not make the truth of such a gift the only possible interpretation), the curious conceit that throughout the entire 1873 expedition nobody ever seems to think to ask the Englishman’s boy’s name and so he is referred to by that rather clumsy title for the entire novel, all this is problematic.

All the above problems are though but a small part of the novel. Vanderhaeghe’s feel for the collision of truth and dreams, for the bloody consequences of conviction, for the reality of a literally lawless country, all this is well captured. When violence erupts, it is convincing. Vanderhaeghe brings early Hollywood, it’s madness and vision and sheer sense of possibility, to life.

Above all, Vanderhaeghe displays a genuine gift for description. The detail of his internal locations is reminiscent of that in much 19th Century literature, sufficient to create an almost cinematic image. Where he truly shines though is with landscape, wilderness, which he brings impressively to life:

… they walked their horses on under an impassive sky dappled with handfuls of torn white cloud flying before the wind like cottonwood fluff. Men and horses blinking in and out of the eye of the sun, cloud shadows overtaking and ecompassing them and racing on, patches of darkness sailing over the billowing grass like blue boats running before a storm. Anetelope and mule-tail, prairie chickens and jack-rabbits, coyotes and fox and grouse started out of the sage, flashed across the emptiness at their approach.

The Englishman’s Boy is just over 400 pages long. In that length it packs a story of Hollywood hubris, an ill-fated expedition into the badlands of 19th Century Canada, an Indian massacre and a meditation on the nature of myth as a way of interpreting the messy past. It is, the problems mentioned above aside, extremely well written and is worth reading for the evocation of place and time alone. Vanderhaeghe was recommended to me by Kevin of http://www.kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com, and it is a recommendation I appreciate. I shall be ordering The Last Crossing, another of Vanderhaeghe’s thoughtful westerns, and look forward to reading it in due course.

The Englishman’s Boy

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15 Comments

Filed under Canadian Literature, Historical Fiction, Vanderhaeghe, Guy, Westerns

15 responses to “The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

  1. A very thoughtful review, Max, which I think does successfully capture both Vanderhaege’s strength and weaknesses. While it has been some years since I read it, the part that lives on in memory is the “compare and contrast” aspect of the two different narratives — and the fact that this part of the world came of age so fast that there are individuals in the latter part that still remember the earlier part firsthand (and yes, Fort Whoop-Up did exist — it was a whiskey trading post not that far south of Calgary, where I live).

    Fortunately the parts of Vanderhaege’s writing that annoyed on first reading do tend to move into the background over time. Like many historical novelists, he does have a tendency to give the reader a lot of (what I find to be) unnecessary history that gets in the way of the fiction. As I said, at least for me that weakness did fade away.

    Good luck with The Last Crossing — it is another novel which I quite enjoyed. And thanks for crediting me with the recommendation.

  2. The contrast between the worlds of the two narratives, and the reminders of how close in time one is to the other, are among the book’s best aspects I agree. The sheer emptiness of 1873, the bustle and vitality of 1923, the land still belonging essentially to the Indians in 1873, their utter absence from the narrative in 1923, that all worked really well I thought.

    Agreed on the problems of historical novelists, my frustration in part with Vanderhaeghe is I think he’s good enough not to need to use infodumps and so on, after the first 30 pages he managed largely without them and I suspect he could have avoided them entirely.

    And credit where it’s due Kevin, I’d heard of Vanderhaeghe but I wouldn’t have read him anytime soon but for your recommendation.

  3. Rob

    Thanks, Max. I’m going to have to track this down. I’m wondering whether I still have a copy of Lindsay Anderson’s About john Ford – would this make suitable companion reading, do you think?

  4. I’m not familiar with that I’m afraid Rob, though it sounds like it wouldn’t do any harm, like Ford Vanderhaeghe uses the Western as a vehicle for exploring wider themes (the Ford comparison had struck me while reading it in that regard). I’d be fascinated to hear what the Anderson book was like actually.

  5. Rob

    I owned it years ago, but never quite got around to reading it before having to jettison it during a house move. I’ll have to see if there are still copies for sale in any of the darker corners of the Internet…

  6. I seek an opinion from Rob with his fiction editor’s hat on. Max found Vanderhaege’s “infodumps” annoying; I’ve just finished The Indian Clerk (review will be posted soon) where the author felt compelled to supply a 10-page addendum on all the research he had done — far, far too much of which he included in the novel, thus ruining the book. Isn’t it the editor’s role to say “great research, Guy, but maybe the reader doesn’t need to read it? Let’s just let him live with the results.” I can remember from my newspaper editing days that with some very good reporters (two of whom went on to become very successful novelists now that I think about it) that was always the greatest challenge: “You don’t have to tell me everything you have uncovered, just give me the interesting bits.”

  7. Infodump may be a term from sf criticism Kevin, it’s a problem that genre is sometimes peculiarly prone to (“I’m glad you asked me how tachyons relate to tardons Brad, let me just fill you in on that…”). Historical fiction runs into it for much the same reason, the reader needs to know certain things to make sense of the story, and the writer can’t find a natural way to communicate them (or having researched them, can’t bear not to share them which is more an issue for historical fiction).

    Anyway, Rob, I’m interested to hear your thoughts also.

  8. Rob

    The short answer (according to me-other opinions are available) is yes! I find this all over the place, and it’s something I can be quite strict about when I’m working on a manuscript. Interestingly, it crops up in much the same way with both invented backstory (eg three dull, irrelevant pages about Character Joe’s schooling) and factual research; authors can be reluctant to let go of either. A lot of the context of a story can simply be intuited or filled in by the reader, based on characters’ behaviour in the moment. Generally (never say never), as long as the reader can understand the plot, the author really can just focus on the ongoing story. This was a big problem I encountered when I reviewed Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens a few weeks back.

    Actually, one of the things I’ve been enjoying about watching Foyle’s War (at Kevin’s recommendation) was the way that the writer gets the historical information into the story through conflict, putting his characters into situations where they simply can’t help but share the information. It’s smart and believable, and when the information comes, it matters to us.

  9. “…when the information comes, it matters to us.”

    That’s the perfect guideline. I can read page after page when it matters (the classic Russian writers come to mind) and get very annoyed at even a paragraph when it doesn’t.

  10. Rob

    Tell us when it matters; if it never matters, don’t tell us.

  11. And when you tell us, tell us naturally, organically, don’t interrupt the book to do so.

    My problem with the DW Griffith bit here wasn’t that I didn’t need to know it, I did, it’s key to the book in many ways. It’s that everything stopped while Vanderhaeghe told me it. I spent two pages receiving a lecture on Griffith, it was clumsy (which was odd, because Vanderhaeghe is otherwise not a clumsy writer, so I think he could have avoided it) and it interrupted the stream of the novel.

    Similarly, one of the most famous examples of this that I know of comes from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. To understand what’s going on, it matters that the reader understands cyberspace, Gibson’s vision of the possibilities of the internet (which at the time of writing of course did not exist). It mattered, Gibson was right to tell us of it, but Gibson stops the book to tell us about it. A character literally watches a children’s tv program which explains what cyberspace is, a scene all the more dismaying given the character in question is a specialist in navigating cyberspace and so would never watch such a program. It’s a famous scene, famous because the book was groundbreaking, but that scene was (and remains) terrible.

    When the information comes, it should matter to us. If it doesn’t matter, don’t tell us. But if it does matter and you want therefore to tell us, don’t stop the book to do so. Make it organic, natural, make it flow from the fiction. If you can’t, query whether we really need to know it after all.

  12. Rob

    Very nicely put, Max.

    I read Neuromancer many years ago, but I no longer remember that scene (or much else about it, come to that).

  13. Neuromancer’s groundbreaking sf, but it’s still sf, I wouldn’t recommend it to those with no interest in the genre at all (unlike, say, Caledonia Sputnik which I would). I’ve actually got a writeup of it on this site, if you’re interested.

    Going back to Englishman’s Boy, I did want to reiterate that it is a good book, it is well written. It has this fault we’ve been discussing, but it’s an annoyance that passes, it’s not so widespread as to ruin the work. I have criticisms of Englishman’s Boy, but it was worth reading and the good in it more than outweighs the bad.

  14. Boston Levite

    What do you think about the connection between image and reality in this novels depiction of what it means to be a man? I am writing an essay on this and have a few ideas, and I know that in this novel it is assured many times that things are not what they seem.. Please let me know what you think or if you have Ideas

  15. Hey Boston,

    I wrote this back in 2009. In all honesty I don’t recall it that clearly. Happy to help if I can though.

    What it means to be a man. Hm. Not a theme I focused on as I recall, but the key has to be Shorty. Back in the 1870s the Englishman’s boy (who by being called boy is by definition not yet wholly a man) is real and living a life of compromise and brutality. In the 1920s Chance and others want to make a myth and to do so they want a connection to a reality now passed. The problem is that it’s a reality that never was, and the myth Chance wishes to create is founded on a fiction of who Shorty was.

    Have you seen the film Unforgiven? If not it’s worth renting or downloading a copy because it addresses precisely this point. A character in that is a gunfighter. He’s followed around by a writer who’s creating a novelisation of the gunfighter’s life. As audience then we see what actually happens in all its stupidity and cruelty and the fictionalised version being created at the same time by the writer.

    The same is happening here, but at a remove of time. What does it mean to be a man? It just is. It’s a fact. One is or isn’t. What does it mean to be a man? What we make it mean through our myths and the lies we tell ourselves?

    It’s ages since I read this so feel free to bounce ideas off me. Something may come back. Good luck with the essay.

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