November 14, 2018

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A fine frontier

Hawley's strong sequel continues her impressive exploration of Daniel Boone

Readers who may dimly recall the name Daniel Boone from the old Fess Parker TV series might have been taken by surprise by Alix Hawley’s decision to write her first novel about the legendary frontiersman.

The B.C. writer’s latest, which picks up where her earlier book (2015’s All True Not a Lie In It) left off, banishes any doubts about the contemporary relevance of a man known mostly as a one-dimensional American hero. Essentially, the two books feel like two parts of one long novel.

Hawley breathes new life into the biographical facts of Boone’s life, presenting an unvarnished portrait of a pattern of settlement that repeated across North America. She does this while avoiding the trap of moralizing on the past.

Ultimately, Hawley presents Boone as the tragic hero of the European settlement of North America: a man most free and happy in the forest and with the Shawnee people of the Ohio Valley, but who irrevocably altered both. Her Boone is also a sort of American Odysseus: a cunning traveller who fought when he had to but used words when he could, and left his long-suffering wife to carry on in his absence.

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Readers who may dimly recall the name Daniel Boone from the old Fess Parker TV series might have been taken by surprise by Alix Hawley’s decision to write her first novel about the legendary frontiersman.

The B.C. writer’s latest, which picks up where her earlier book (2015’s All True Not a Lie In It) left off, banishes any doubts about the contemporary relevance of a man known mostly as a one-dimensional American hero. Essentially, the two books feel like two parts of one long novel.

Hawley breathes new life into the biographical facts of Boone’s life, presenting an unvarnished portrait of a pattern of settlement that repeated across North America. She does this while avoiding the trap of moralizing on the past.

Ultimately, Hawley presents Boone as the tragic hero of the European settlement of North America: a man most free and happy in the forest and with the Shawnee people of the Ohio Valley, but who irrevocably altered both. Her Boone is also a sort of American Odysseus: a cunning traveller who fought when he had to but used words when he could, and left his long-suffering wife to carry on in his absence.

Her earlier novel (which won the Amazon.ca First Novel award) followed Boone through his establishment of a white settlement in Kentucky and to his period as a captive and adopted son of the Shawnee Chief Black Fish. This one starts with Boone escaping to warn the Kentucky community of an impending attack by the Shawnee and their British allies during the American Revolutionary War.

Scenes during the harrowing siege by the Shawnee and of later battles and raids make clear that this was not a one-sided conflict.

Hawley’s Boone is a would-be peacemaker whose efforts are blocked by rivals for leadership in the white community. One of them, the vengeful Col. Callaway, tells him: "Peace will never come here until they are dead to the last man, the last infant."

The inevitability of violence stemming from desire for land is one the novel’s central themes, possibly why Joyce Carol Oates describes Hawley in a blurb as "Cormac McCarthy’s young heiress."

Though her prose doesn’t resemble McCarthy’s labyrinthine and ornate style, there is something reminiscent of McCarthy in sentiments such as this (expressed by Boone’s wife, Rebecca): "Your way and Black Fish’s way is to say we are all brothers and must live together. It is not possible, do you not see it? I do not know how you cannot."

Mike Hawley photo</p><p>Alix Hawley breathes new life into the story of legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone.</p>

Mike Hawley photo

Alix Hawley breathes new life into the story of legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone.

Boone has a dark side himself, which he expresses as the violence is coming to a head: "This ground is why we have come here, it is why they killed my boy, and why should I mind making it darker and bloodier?"

One of the novel’s strengths is Hawley’s willingness to present the past as the past — without anachronistically voicing modern sentiments.

The presence of slaves among the Kentucky settlers is taken as a given. So, too, is the subordinate position of women, consigned to constant labour in both meanings of that word. Passages told from Rebecca’s point of view show the emotional cost of the constant conflict and uprooting that characterized life for the Boones.

It’s Rebecca who diagnoses the source of Daniel’s dissatisfaction — and perhaps the inborn malaise of the society he helped create.

"Your poor old ma told me that you were born hands-first," she tells her husband. "Reaching for some other place already."

For an intriguing look at a pivotal figure in American culture, Hawley’s books are worth reaching for.

Bob Armstrong is a Winnipegger with a lifelong weakness for frontier tales.

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