Hawley, Alix. All True Not a Lie In It. Knopf Canada, Toronto. 2015. F;12/17.
This pretty young Canadian author caught my interest (because of her writing) in an issue (vol 19 #1) of literary periodical Tin House which I picked up looking for such things to subscribe to. Hers was a short piece reviewing a book about one Harriette Wilson, a high-flying fifteen-year-old seductress who lived near the end of the 19th century. Hawley’s writing about this girl was delicate and educated I thought, very modern but spying from a discrete distance on a headlong life lived 150 years ago.
This novel of Hawley’s which attracted some critical attention was about the life of American explorer and frontier hero Daniel Boone, kind of a strange choice I thought for a young Canadian writer with a first-class literary education (top student of her year in Arts at UBC, then Oxford PhD, then MFA). The story offers an extreme realist take on the American icon, possibly de-mythologizing him while (I gather from online reviews and history sketches) sticking like the very good student the author is meticulously to the facts.
Her Boone is painted in plain colours: illiterate, rarely bathing, debt-ridden, and morally ambivalent. But he’s not stupid: “Pleasant to meet you here as well. Out for a stroll?” he says confronting in the woods an adversary likely setting him up for execution. He can be homespun-philosophical: “It seems to me… that the rich always carry a happiness that they do not know they have. Not to need money is a happiness that must go down to the marrow.” He helplessly adores his kids and is haunted by remorse after one of them dies, remembering frightening the boy with a little howling noise he made, “I wish with all my soul I had never made that noise, Jamesie, forgive me.” Hawley’s Boone is no mister perfect and no cynical bad boy, and not the Disney Davy Crockett I imagine many people see him as.
But is this historic tale after all ironic in its blood-and-guts, endurance-and-violence plot and furniture? There’s none of the donnish delicacy of Hawley’s book review of the historic teenage prostitute. This one is packed with filth, stink, killing animals, war, death, and starvation, Alix Hawley showing us she can handle hard masculine dirt as well as the kind you find in bed with a moneymaking 15-year-old. Here it’s murderous history alongside the likes of Vargas Llosa (The War of the End of the World) or Ruth Chatlien (Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale), although I have to say she lets us endure a few ennui-inducing stretches of tedium. See, it was really boring as well as painful back then, all you comfortable Walt Disney fans. Is she laughing at conventional history? A bit like Candice Millard in Hero of the Empire the spirit of this story sounds serious although this author has to be smart enough to be hinting at a bad joke.
I didn’t get what I was after jumping into this after reading Alix Hawley’s generously intimate book review. They say she has another novel coming out next summer and it would probably be worth a look, unless she is inextricably committed to rubbing readers’ noses in the punishment I’m sure we all richly deserve. It might be good for us and even cure us of our mendacious temperaments to be exposed to something with Not a Lie In It. Unless she sees pitching a story about old Daniel Boone as something we should take to heart these days as morally and politically weird I wonder if it might be a better use of Hawley’s smarts to give us a bit more fun. 7.8/7.9.