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The Englishman’s Boy

by Guy Vanderhaeghe

In Guy Vanderhaeghe’s latest novel, The Englishman’s Boy, two seemingly disparate narratives intersect to form an impressive whole. Related in alternating chapters, the first tale centres on the Englishman’s boy, a young man who ends up in a posse of cowboys chasing Indians suspected of horse stealing. From the spartan meals of biscuits and dried meat, to the rawhide ropes used to lash together a river raft, Vanderhaeghe relies on exquisite details to produce a startling story. The effect is a captivating portrait of the lawlessness and violence of the 1870s. What also emerges is an understanding of the reasons a chasm existed between natives and whites. Vanderhaeghe is not interested in casting blame or choosing sides, but rather in exposing events from two distinct perspectives. This he achieves without sacrificing story. Though never didactic, The Englishman’s Boy delivers an excellent history lesson.

The second story takes place in Hollywood during the 1920s and is a first-person account of a hack title writer, Harry Vincent, who is plucked out of obscurity by the studio’s enigmatic head, Damon Ira Chance, and given the task of finding a cowboy named Shorty McAdoo. Vanderhaeghe uses the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ethos of the motion picture industry during its infancy as a backdrop to examine the struggle of a young man trying to reconcile integrity with ambition.

Firmly rooted in Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy territory, where big sky is equaled by big story, Vanderhaeghe has created a work that is sweeping in scope and epic in delivery. The intricacies of intertwining dual narratives coupled with a wonderful cast of characters who are confronted with tough moral choices created the impression that Vanderhaeghe was working on a lofty plane. In short, The Englishman’s Boy had the makings of a classic.

But such a book demands a fitting conclusion. Without divulging details, I will simply say that the novel ends with a whimper instead of a bang. Which is disappointing, considering Vanderhaeghe has held us in his spell for so long and has come so close to greatness, only to let it slip away.