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.