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Had this beautifully wrought novel not received some publicity for winning the Governor General's Award in Canada in l996, it might have remained "undiscovered" in this age of pop culture and instant bestsellerdom for many books whose primary value seems to be their bankability as future films. Yet author Vanderhaeghe probably would not have been surprised by this. In fact, one of the main themes of this absorbing and satisfying book is the power of film, "the glory of American lightning," and the different goals to which it can be adapted by "artists" and "visionaries."
Structurally, the book tells two stories in alternate chapters set in the Canadian Wild West of the l870's and in Hollywood in the l920's. The author makes no real attempt to create suspense about the identity of the Englishman's boy of the 1870's and who he has become by the 1920's. The author has a bigger vision than that.
Instead, he chooses to reveal small parts of the continuum of history between these dates until at the end the full story of the Englishman's boy is revealed. At the same time, the thematically subtle juxtaposition of specific events from these dramatically different times and places shows how little human nature has changed and how much it is important to be true to ideals and values, whatever they may be and however they may have to accommodate the changes of history.
In this astutely crafted story of wolfer/hunters, Indians, Hollywood moguls, young strivers toward success, Socialists, preservers of the status quo, barely surviving traders, immigrants, hard men, and "visionaries" who would impose their dreams on the masses via film, the reader is caught up in the swirl of history and asked to think about the extent to which history is simply a succession of random events, whether the events have been imposed upon us, and how much, if at all, we can control our own dreams and our futures. Mary Whipple
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on 20 November 2000
Spanning as it does two centuries and two distinct ages, this book manages to catch the true hardships of the real "Wild West", and by clever juxtaposition tie them in with the madness that was Hollywood in the twenties. The central character, a Canadian working as a caption writer in the early days of the silent movies, is commissioned by a movie magnate of suitable sinister characteristics, to trace a real cowboy glimpsed only as an extra in a movie. Cutting as it does, cleverly between the then present day Hollywood and a relic of the Old West, the reader is transported simultaneously between the lawless frontier and Indian Fighters to the equally lawless Hollywood scene where movie moguls and the stars of the day did exactly what they wanted without regard to humanity they destroyed along the way, The parallels are clear and the comparisons which at first seem unlikely, become plain as the novel progresses. The descriptions both of the West and the Hollywood scene are graphic and truthful. The scenes of the Old West one suspects are much more truthful than any western movies with the exception of possibly those of Sam Peckinpah and the more recent "Ride with the Devil" A well crafted novel of considerable power, but which unfortunately seems to go slightly off the rails at the very end. Nevertheless a masterly accomplishment, a very good read, and for those interested in Hollywood or the Old west, or both, a book not to be missed
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"It was a force mounted and armed and accoutered without consistency, piebald and paint buffalo runners, blooded bays and chestnuts, Henrys and Sharps and Winchesters and Colts and double-barrelled scatterguns, a Derringer in a coat pocket, skinning knives and Bowie knives, hatchets, a Confederate cavalry sabre hung scabbarded on a saddlehorn, smoke-stained buckskins and bar-stained broadcloth, broken plug hats and glossy fur caps, loud checked shirts and patched linen, canvas dusters and wool capotes, parfleche-soled moccasins and high heeled riding boots. Every face bearing a different mark of vice or virtue, motive or resolve." - The punitive expedition ready to ride against American Indian horse thieves, in THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY

The Great American Myth, or Legend if you will. As I understand it having been born shortly after World War II, it's the American Western; stout-hearted pioneers and brave cavalry troopers battle marauding Indians on the endless plains, lonely lawmen out-draw desperadoes in the main streets of dusty settlements, and honest (and sometimes singing) cowboys - spurs a janglin' - drive herds across an unforgiving landscape to cow towns where gold-hearted saloon girls await. The Myth, first created by writers of cheap pulp fiction for the masses, was adapted to the Silver Screen by Tinseltown in the first half of the twentieth century and the legend became firmly established as God's Own Truth in the minds of an idolizing and fulfilled citizenry.

The Myth has been perceived as national in scope, but is, I think, more accurately appreciated as "tribal." The intrepid heroes of the sagas, especially those in the Moving Pictures, are virtually always WASPish. Indeed, that's but one aspect of the Myth that was spoofed in the film Blazing Saddles [1974] [DVD]. But, I digress.

THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY begins in the spring of 1873 as two young, Indian warriors steal the horses from a band of wolf hunters encamped on the plains of Montana Territory. Later, after having made the long walk to Fort Benton, the remounted wolfers ride out to recapture their horses and punish the thieves. Joining the vigilante group is "The Englishman's Boy", a young American wanderer until recently the gun-bearer for a visiting - and recently felled by disease - English dandy on a Wild Frontier hunting vacation.

Also in this novel by Guy Vanderhaege, it's 1923 Hollywood. Harry Vincent, a young title-writer laboring in the bowels of Best Chance Pictures, is summoned to the Hollywood Hills home of his studio's reclusive head, Damon Ira Chance. Harry is persuaded to track down an aging bit-player in the Western films of the day, Shorty McAdoo. Shorty is elusive, but is also rumored to be the last, genuine, Indian-fighting cowboy alive. Damon suspects Shorty has a story to tell, and he wants Vincent to get it.

The reader will surmise from early on that The Englishman's Boy and Shorty McAdoo are one and the same.

In alternating chapters, the reader follows both the outcome of the wolfers' punitive expedition and Harry's task to find Shorty and get his story, the latter evolving into Vincent's struggle to maintain his integrity and self-esteem in the face of Chance's film-making obsession.

THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY is also, incidentally as a sub-plot, a window on the Hollywood of the 1920s, in itself an American Myth that will not withstand close scrutiny untarnished. But that is perhaps best left to another account that has been, or has yet to be, written.

This brilliant novel serves to remind that the West could be, and certainly was, a capricious, cruel and violent place with nary a Hoppy, Roy, Gene, Paladin or Marshall Dillon within a day's riding distance. In the evolution of films within my lifetime, I first realized something was amiss with the Myth with the "Spaghetti Westerns", in which life and death were gritty affairs and the heroes not always clean-shaven, neatly-pressed and admirable. And the White Hats seemed in short supply. Then, with the screen adaptation of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (Re-mastered) [2008] [DVD], perhaps the greatest TV miniseries ever made, we saw indeed the random cruelty and brutality and fickle dangers to be found in rivers and forgotten arroyos and around lonely campfires in the Old West. Finally, in Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning Unforgiven [1992] [DVD], any romantic notions that we had left regarding the Great American Myth were perhaps shattered forever. One wonders why Westerns have become Hollywood's forgotten genre; nobody would now believe a resurgence of the mythology.

THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY describes a particular instance in the fueling of the Myth. Perhaps the book's most moving chapter is the last in which such tribal myth-making is depicted as being a cross-cultural phenomenon - as if that was ever in doubt.

THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY is a wonderful, thought-provoking, eloquent read that itself would supply the script for an epic film.
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The Canadian novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe's "The Englishman's Boy"(1996) consists of two story lines woven together, mostly effectively. The first story is set in the Hollywood of the 1920s and is narrated in the first person by Harry Vincent, a young wandering man from Canada who finds employment as a writer at a studio. The second story is set in the United States and Canadian west of the 1870's. It is told in a halting narrative in the third person. The story is about a group of wolf trappers who pursue Indians after their horses have been stolen. The pursuit leads to violent, tragic consequences. The key figure bridging both stories is "The Englishman's Boy". The young man is in fact American, not English, but he secures work as a servant to a wealthy Englishman who has come to America in search of adventure. One event leads to another, and the young drifter finds himself involved in the posse of the trappers.

Successive chapters of the book alternate between the stories until the threads gradually come together. There is a degree of mirror imaging in the stories as both weave together hard facts and ideals. Both involve a search for mythmaking and national unity in the face of a recalcitrant reality. The search for a national purpose in a diverse, balky country is a continuing theme in American life.

In addition to Harry Vincent, the Hollywood story includes a Hollywood producer, his primary assistant, and a young woman, Rachel Gold, a friend and romantic interest of Harry's. The producer is raw, greedy, and vulgar, but also has a thoughtful, idealistic understanding of film and of America. Among other people, the director is an admirer of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson who taught the importance of intuition over discursive reasoning. The director wants to engage in mythmaking with a Western and asks Harry to track down an old cowboy, Shorty McAdoo, and get what he feels will be an inspiring story. This part of the book shows a Hollywood with its ambitions and flaws as Harry finds and gets to know Shorty McAdoo and his history.

The second story focuses on the posse and of the small group (12 or 13) of men who make it up. The story includes depictions of the West and of its tough characters, trappers, farmers, traders, and Indian tribes and bands. The characterizations and events of this story are sometimes foggy and difficult to follow, probably deliberately so. But the main thread comes through in a brutal fight and its consequences.

The stories are threaded together and gradually joined. At times the shifting back and forth proved distracting and also slowed down the pace in the manner of the old saw "meanwhile, back at the ranch" or the cutaway to a commercial at a climactic moment. Still, for the most part this book was riveting and intense.

The book and its characters are torn between ideals and reality and cynicism. The West has long been a symbol of American character and of the quest for freedom as shown for example in Frederick Jackson Turner's famous study "The Frontier in American History". Hollywood is regarded as the place of dreams and culture for the many people who don't know much about, say, Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" or Hart Crane's "The Bridge" which both involve American mythmaking on a grand scale. Griffith's film, "The Birth of a Nation" with its racism runs through this book, both for its attempt to find a national ideal and for the seriously flawed way the film presented the ideal. The book on the whole shows a hard skepticism. It makes for sad but thoughtful reading in an America that still struggles with questions of its past, its national identity, and its ideals.

Robin Friedman
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on 24 January 2012
This is a real gem. For those who enjoy history, particularly US late nineteenth century and the golden age of silent movies in the 1920s, then this is a must read.

Vanderhaeghe cleverly weaves a tale involving two strands: one part of the story sees writer Harry Vincent looking back on a time in his life when he worked for (fictitious) movie mogul Damon Ira Chance in the 1920s; the other part concerns the story of two Assiniboine Indians rustling twenty horses from a group of sleeping white men, wolf hunters taking in their pelts for trade. The wolf hunters then form a search party to retrieve the stolen horses which includes a young drifter known to them only as `The Englishman's Boy.'

Meanwhile Vincent is employed by Chance to track down the enigmatic and evasive old-time Western actor Shorty McAdoo in Hollywood. Chance wants to make the ultimate film about the American West and he needs McAdoo to add authenticity.

This is a highly ambitious project with Vanderhaeghe's story taking place in America and Canada as well as two different centuries. Vincent tasked with finding McAdoo is a Canadian himself and through him we get added perspective.

With characters like the feisty, intelligent and desirable Rachel Gold and the thuggish and intimidating Denis Fitzsimmons this one crackles and sparkles with strong as well as believable characters and snappy dialogue. Both the 1920s and 1870s are equally well evoked and it's clear that Vanderhaeghe has done his research.

This is a world of DW Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Lillian Gish and of course cowboys and their story, which forms the meat and potatoes of this novel. Vanderhaeghe expertly crafts a tale that manages to be intriguing as well as authentic as it debunks the myths of the Old West.

The movie mogul Chance is only interested in presenting the world with a film through the filter of his own viewpoint where the actual truth can be conveniently discarded as long as he can entertain, provoke and of course influence the public's opinion.

Vincent does not see the world in this way and as he becomes more involved with his subject he has a moral dilemma on his hands: What is more important: Money, or a clear conscience?

This is harsh, brutal, savage yet also beautiful and captivating. The novel is packed with powerful, unforgettable images and is bang on the money in its depiction of sentiment and harking back to an age or era that never was or could ever be. A case of `the good old bad old days' if you will.

What Chance wants is a rose-tinted epic that tells a story from his own skewed perspective. What Vincent discovers is something far more gripping and complicated as well as a terrible secret which thanks to the strict Hays code that operated at that time would ensure that the truth would always be a hard sell.

Despite the tough subject matter which at times I found both bleak and chilling, this stands as a provocative and fascinating novel about two eras which over the ensuing years have been over-romanticised where the truth has been somehow lost in translation. If you are a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck you will love this.
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on 5 May 2007
This is an extraordinary book on a well established theme, namely the Hollywood version versus the real version of the American (or in this case Canadian) West. What makes this different is that it re-creates the Hollywood of the 20's, just post D.C. Griffiths, and the Canadian Indian Wars (altohugh the grubby little encounter depicted hardly qualified as a war). Both are done convincingly. The vainglory of the slightly mad but inspired move producer collides with the flinty integrity of the hard-bitten western drifter and fading "cowboy" in a denouement which is a bit predictable but quite satisfying in the end. An unusual read with some truly poetic writing at times. Real life in the west was never painted more starkly or with sharper truth.
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on 27 December 2011
I bought this book as I had read 'The Last Crossing' by the same author which I had thought superb. I was a little disappointed and have to say that whilst it's not a bad read, I'm glad I read them that way round as if I had read this first then I don't think I would have bothered with another book written by him.
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on 13 October 2004
Well what can I say... I was recommended this book by a friend in Canada. The author is awesome. I do not read much, but after reading this book, I have now purchased 3 other books by this author
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