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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Englishman’s Boy

Reviewed: March 9, 2008
By: a reading by Ken Kramer of the novel by Guy Vanderhaeghe
Publisher: BTC Audio Books
3 CDs, 4 hours, $29.95

In this novel Guy Vanderhaeghe has cleverly woven together the tales of two young man who are trying to make their ways in the world. The tales are set about 50 years apart and their point of intersection is when one tries to tell the story of the other.

This is not a new literary device. Anne Rice used it in Interview with a Vampire, for instance, and it wasn’t new then, but when it works it allows the writer to bring a pair of character foils together and have them strike sparks, and that’s just what happens here.

The novel is narrated by Harry Vincent, a young writer who would like to be an “up and comer” in Hollywood, but has so far been just writing titles for silent films. He is approached by producer Damon Ira Chance to do the research and write a photoplay based on the life of a cowboy turned stuntman named Shorty McAdoo. Chance has heard enough about this man to believe his life contains the stuff of true American legend and can be the basis for a great American western epic, the type that can’t possibly be made by all the Jews and Europeans who dominate the industry of the 1920s.

Chance wants to inspire the nation to be strong, dynamic and forceful and, it becomes clear, racially intolerant and more than bit fascist, although Mussolini had not yet become Il Duce by 1923 and Hitler was unknown outside of Munich.

Vincent gains the trust of McAdoo and takes down his story in shorthand, offering it to Chance bit by bit. It becomes increasingly clear that Chance intends to play fast and loose with Shorty’s real story, altering it to fit his own twisted sense of racial psychology. Vincent quits and yet still manages to be a witness to the final events of the tale.

McAdoo was the Englishman’s Boy of the title, and his story is told in the alternate chapters or in the case of this audio production, the alternate tracks. Taken on as a travelling companion by a sickly English tourist in the 1870s, he is left to fend for himself when the man takes a fever and dies in a frontier town. Defending himself successfully in a saloon fight with a much bigger man, he attracts the attention of Tom Hardwick, a wolf trapper who is recruiting men to help him track down a group of Indians who he says have stolen his horses.

The Boy falls in with this group. Hardwick, like Chance, seems at first to be simply a hard driven man on a mission, but he emerges as a man who is cruel and racist and takes no prisoners. Tracking the natives from Montana into Saskatchewan, he stages the horror known to history as the Cyprus Hills Massacre.

We don’t actually know that anyone named Hardwick was the leader in this event. but it would have been that type of man. What we do know is that the massacre caused the creation of the Northwest Mounted Police in that same year, with a view to preventing any further such incursions by Americans.

The Boy faces the same type of choice that Vincent does, though McAdoo’s comes earlier in his life. He has a code to live by after that, a code to prevent him from ever doing something like that again, but a code which will also drive him to react against Chance’s theft of his life story.

All of this is related to us by Vincent, who experienced a formative crisis as a result of his involvement with Chance and McAdoo, and returned home to find a quieter, more ethical life. From that vantage point, some 30 years after his own adventures, he tells us the whole story.

Vanderhaeghe often writes of pivotal events in the lives of his characters, and this novel also examines the role the media can play in interpreting the world in which we live. Shorty would tell the simple truth, Harry would weave it into a true story but try to find the point of it. Chance would bastardize reality to fit his own delusions and try to shape the views of others.

Facts are hard to pin down. A Goggle search turns up varying accounts of this story. In some the massacre was strictly the work of the American wolfers, of which a man named Hardwick may have been one. In others they were joined in the killing by whiskey traders and a group of Métis freighters (Wikipedia) , In others the remaining Assiniboine people found shelter at a nearby Métis encampment (Canadian Encyclopedia).

It’s a bit hard to believe that CBC actually sat on the mini-series made from this book for two years, but that’s what we learned in the latest issue of McLean’s magazine in an interview with Nicholas Campbell, who plays the role of the older Shorty McAdoo in the television production which has aired over the last two weeks. The mini-series was scripted by Vanderhaeghe and does a good job interpreting the text.

Likewise, this reading by Ken Kramer is an excellent piece of work.

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