All True Not a Lie in It
Written by Alix Hawley
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$29.95 ISBN 978-0-345-80855-4
Being of the slightly suspicious sort, I will refrain from making predictions about chief juries’ receptions of All True Not A Lie In It, and simply state that if the acutely-etched portrait Alix Hawley paints of American pioneer Daniel Boone even faintly resembles the real man, a stronger spirit has rarely roamed this earth.
Here is quintessential Boone: “I thin down to sinew, I feel strung like a bow … I fashion myself a real bow and some arrows with saplings and gut … I shoot a wildcat with it just as it considers tensing to spring at me … It falls, shot clean. Killing it so, without touching it or hurting it, is a beauty to me, there is no other like it. I love that bow sending its quick arrow to the heart just as if it is stopping time.” The unlikely combination of fierce wanderlust and waxing poetic squarely hits the mark.
In her foreword to this ambitious and mesmerizing first novel, Hawley writes that she knew little of this “slippery character, a peculiar mix of famous and forgotten” before she began scoring his tale. To that I say this: holy research, and readers: Take Notice Now. The frighteningly talented Kelowna writer (and Okanagan College professor) seized this reader like a rider on a fly-past horse; it is indeed difficult to reconcile that Hawley herself has only graced this earth since 1975.
“Your sister is a whore,” the fictional story begins. These five words set both the book’s elegiac tone and introduce us to one of Boone’s three families—his childhood, Quaker family; his own wife and progeny; and the Shawnee family he is adopted into. All figure prominently. Central to Boone’s character is the early death of his elder brother, Israel. “Dan” drags a litany of dead with him, as if on a leash. He is similarly haunted by familial misdeeds (his grandfather built the Quaker Meeting House in Exeter, Pennsylvania “as a penance” for his “whoring” in England before arriving in America), and by the wild reputation that precedes him (his “woodman’s prowess” and “nobility of character” are propelled by Will, who tails him from childhood on and widely publishes accounts of Boone’s life), but Boone’s greatest ghost is his burning lust for settling paradisiacal Kentucky. Folks, there’s a lot going on.
Hawley writes in First Person: “I watch for anything to shoot. Anything. I watch for signs, for tracks, for moving shadows, for twitches in the trees and grass”. From his earliest days, the larger-than-life protagonist possesses a hyper-aware ability to “follow the animals’ thoughts”. His own poetic and philosophical thoughts are often revealed in short bursts, which serve to emulate the bursting dramas that define his legendary life.
Perhaps the author’s greatest talent lies in her cinematic ability to manipulate the focus and pacing. She handily moves between the everyday (ie: young Boone “suck[s] in the kitchen-garden smell of onions and graves” at his grandfather’s stone house) and between Boone’s rich interior life, and between the landscapes and brutal battles he experiences as he restlessly crisscrosses the early map of America. There is no peace for this man: he was fired up early on by Israel’s admonition to do as he likes. Our hero feels “Forting up is rotten,” and he “hate[s] wagoning down to the pit of [his] gut,” thus he repeatedly takes off in various configurations: alone, with his adventurous counterparts, or dragging his family and fellow pioneers along behind him in their “clanking parade” of carts, livestock, and “children always falling out of their baskets”.
The detailing is spectacular: “Under the splintery red face on the sign for The Indian Queen tavern, a man pukes neatly and then deposits a backgammon piece in the puddle.” Hawley’s not one to avert a graphic scene. There is a scalping “How To,” and she writes of Boone and company’s hazing-like torture—which includes running a gauntlet, being dunked in icy river water, and having fistfuls of hair wrenched from their skulls by Shawnee women—with such credibility one veritably experiences the pain.
Although Boone’s cleverly portrayed in all of his man’s-manliness, Hawley equally reveals his flipside. The portrayals of this complex man as beguiled suitor (especially the slow-motion scene of Boone’s future wife sitting in a tree picking cherries) and loving father (particularly when he cuddles with his “far too old for this” son before a campfire) are well worth owning the book for.
Daniel Boone, as both history and Hawley attest, possessed an innate aptitude for not getting killed … by the Shawnee, Iroquois and Cherokee, by British and French soldiers, by cold, starvation, wild animals, and by his own omnipresent grief. “I am an empty house where sounds echo and have nothing to catch upon,” he confesses, after being separated from his true family for far too long. They have become “like a set of knives stuck in me and pulled out again, leaving holes.”
Here is a prediction I do feel safe in making: All True Not A Lie In It will make an indelible mark.
Shelley A. Leedahl is a multi-genre writer in Ladysmith, BC. Her latest book is the essay collection I Wasn’t Always Like This (Signature Editions, Winnipeg).