After the Great War, the United States entered a golden age never seen before. The economic boom created what we now call «The roaring twenties». During this decade, people from all around the world immigrated to the United States, land of freedom and opportunity; everybody wanted to live the American dream. With as much multiculturalism came also xenophobia, after all, everybody is afraid of novelty. The plot from Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Englishman’s Boy, published in 1996 and winner of the Governor General’s award the same year, takes place mostly during this period. Harry Vincent, a junior scenarist for a big movie company, is paid to write the story of an old cowboy, but the interview is not a common cowboy tale, it is supposed to be the best western ever. While this is only half of the book, the other half contains even more action. It tells the story of a young boy travelling through Montana to the Cypress Hills. As the reader advances through the chapters, Vanderhaeghe shows two completely different sides of the story. The parallel plot shows perfectly how everybody interprets the same story differently. The reader witnesses both sides as he follows Harry and Mr Chance who are making a movie around the tale and the Englishman’s boy which lived the story behind the picture. The following shows how both main characters, Harry and the boy, interfere with their antagonist, Mr Chance, and the way it establishes the theme of the novel.
First, Harry had the motivation to help Mr Chance in his movie because the old millionaire told him his passionate, almost idealistic, idea behind the western picture. Harry is convinced about the good will of Chance shortly after the second chapter. The movie producer explains how he sees his future movie: « You see, Harry, I want to make pictures rooted in American history and American experience. » (p. 16) Harry is an intelligent man and he understands the goal Mr Chance wants to reach. He is ready to help and gives everything he can to achieve the scenario. At first sight, everyone has a good will and wants to make a profitable movie. Therefore, Harry cooperates with Chance. After all, they want to reach the same goal, making one of the best true-story to be projected on the big screen. Later, in the twenty-fourth chapter, Vanderhaeghe shows the real plan of Mr Chance. His idealism is blended with his crazy eccentric side and he explains his true intentions: « This picture is about psychological truth, poetic truth. Poetic truth is not journalism. » (p. 252). In the following pages, Chance puts down his plan to implant immigrants all over the United States by making a common enemy, the basic rule of fascism and propaganda. From this point, the main character gives up his job but don’t fight either; him being so scared of his boss, as he explains to his dear friend Rachel Gold: «Goddamn right I’m scared of him [Mr Chance]. » (p. 268). The way Harry reacts to his boss triggers a new plot as they work against each other. Unfortunately, United States being also the land of capitalism, Harry can’t change the movie and just hope to stay alive, becoming more and more paranoiac. Before going back to Canada, Harry is so horrified by the idea of Fitz, Chance’s henchman, beating or even killing him that he stays by his window all day long.
While the main character didn’t change the way the plot ends, he certainly interferes with the theme of the book. Harry acts as the victim: David against Goliath. As he chooses not to fight fire against fire, he finally decides to show the truth by writing the story he gave to Chance. It shows how people are ready to do anything to grow richer, even lying to a whole nation. Interpretation then becomes the only important thing as the same story became absolutely different because of how one wants to show it the way one sees it. Consequently, some people, like Chance, will make stories which symbolize some wolfers as heroes against the enemies of the nation, Native Americans. Since the beginning of the book, this old eccentric wanted to show to the whole nation what it was to be American, to do this, he lied about giving a true story and change the plot by making an enemy out of the victim, a young Indian girl. Why he wanted to do this? To prove America is the best country and he intended to prove his point as quoted on page 297: « The time has come to rewrite history […] of the foreigner, erase completely those sentimental flowers of memory and light their minds with the glory of American lightning. » In counterpart, Harry tells the truth by writing the story of this young boy, who is not a hero, far from it, and puts in words the last scene: where the wolfers act as stubborn alcoholics and rape a young girl after killing almost every other villagers. This is followed by the gang setting fire to the house where they imprisoned the little Assiniboine.
Finally, maybe the main character could not beat Chance on his own game but he certainly could tell the truth. The only bright side of the story is that Chance’s movie doesn’t become the iconic tale he hoped it would be. Harry made what would be the best; he left Hollywood and paid his respects to old Shorty McAdoo, once called the Englishman’s boy, by writing the truth about an important part of the history of America.