In 1784, the historian and surveyor John Filson published an early work of American history entitled The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. The meat of the book quickly became outshone by its appendix, which recounted a series of adventures embarked upon by an explorer named "Colonel Daniel Boon." Filson's book was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and as the stories in the appendix made their way into the public discourse, they started to snowball; before long, Daniel Boone was well on his way to becoming the national folk hero that he remains in the United States today.
Alix Hawley isn't the first author to revisit Boone's life and times in a work of historical fiction. There have already been a half-dozen films and a Newbery Medal-winning children's novel, not to mention a live-action adventure series that ran for more than 150 episodes on CBS in the 1960s. For her first novel, however, the Kelowna, B.C.-based author revisits the formative years Boone spent on the American frontier and tries to untangle fact from fiction, or at least to retangle it in new and surprising ways. All True Not a Lie in It begins with an author's note in which Hawley vows to continue the man's "myth-making tradition, moving some of the dates of Boone's chronology, making guesses."
We begin with Boone as a child in a small Pennsylvania Quaker community, trying to outrun the heckles and insults tossed at him by his peers. It turns out the rest of the Boone family is no more popular among the town's religious elite. Multiple children are involved in pregnancy scandals, for which Boone's father is forced to apologize during public town meetings. Young Daniel has a knack for hunting and exploration, and when the Boone family is forced to leave town, relocating to the wilderness of North Carolina's Yadkin Valley, he begins to search further west for a place to call his own.
Hawley's narration keeps us firmly inside Boone's head, which is both blessing and curse. By his own admission, Boone has no gift of the gab: "Our talk is careful and unexcited," he says, "drumming out in short beats." Nevertheless, it's refreshing to see the subject of any folklore get caught up in the banalities of everyday life; Boone is never more sympathetic than when he looks at the crops that need his attention and sees only "goddamned corn." Hawley also nicely captures the unpredictability of the landscape itself. While exploring Kentucky, Boone repeatedly describes it as "Heaven," but also admits that his particular heaven is full of hornets that sting his fellow settlers in the throat. (It's also home to groups of native Americans who repeatedly rob Boone of his furs and boot him out of their territory.)
But if Hawley's project is to strip Boone of some of his mythic veneer, the novel is a victim of its own success. Jacket copy tells readers to prepare for "Daniel Boone as you've never imagined him," but that's exactly the problem: As a Canadian, I've never imagined him. Your mileage may vary, but to take the novel at face value, Hawley's Boone is a restless hunter who becomes famous for no discernible reason. The mythmaking theme is established early on: "People begin to know me," he thinks, after winning a marksmanship contest, "they talk of me as if I were not there. As if I were a tale." But for most of the book, Boone seems an arbitrary target for fame. Hawley does such a thorough job of deglamorizing his exploits that readers are sent scurrying to Wikipedia to figure out what those exploits were in the first place.
Plus, without a clear understanding of why we should care about this average-sounding man, the novel's early scenes are weighted down with artificial foreshadowing. Multiple sections end with a sudden ratcheting up of suspense with cryptic phrases like "I do not know at this time that you will follow me always" or "At this time I do not know how many dead followers I will have." In the absence of real stakes, Hawley tries in vain to convince us that Boone would be haunted daily by a dead brother about whom we don't learn much. Later scenes, in which an adult Boone is abducted and forcibly integrated into a Shawnee settlement, achieve this conflicted mood far more naturally.
In her author's note, Hawley admits that for a long time she, too, knew next to nothing about Boone, save for a stray illustration from National Geographic, "which I hadn't seen since I was nine." Her interest was reactivated, clearly, but she doesn't say why. Here, as in the text itself, a little more instruction would go a long way.
Michael Hingston is books columnist for The Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes.