“I am young and I believe that I know what I ought to do, I believe that I can get free and make my own way. Though it is only Death opening its clothes to me and saying: Look close.“
I’ve been in a weird Wild West / frontier fiction phase* so I was immediately sold on this novel: sharp and searing prose, the life and times of Daniel Boone, and a Giller longlister to boot.
First of all, it has one of the best openings I’ve read all year:
Doesn’t that just grab you by the spine and give you a shake?
I expected a sensational, guns-blazing account of pioneerism, but Hawley avoided what would have been easy tropes in favour of a subtle, chilling, realistic account of frontier life. It reads as though the ghost of Boone tells the story – not the larger-than-life hero of folk ballads, but the weary and warily hopeful man behind the legend. It’s not the story of creating or discovering a new country so much as the search for a place to call home – with all the problematic colonial undercurrents that entails in 18th century America. It’s a struggle that not only defines Boone, but one that speaks to the heart and soul of what it means to be American – and even Canadian.
By far the best part of the novel is Alix Hawley’s searing, gorgeous prose. I kept stopping to reread phrases, paragraphs, whole pages – drinking it in like a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning.
“The past is stuffed with the dead, I know. I cannot look at them. Look at what is here now: here is my wife, here is my daughter, here am I. We are all in pieces. We all move about, everything moves, as it seems to me. These pieces have landed here for the time, but who can say when they will fly apart again?”
In the end, Hawley weaves equal parts despair and hope together in a single figure: every happy moment is tinged with the ominous feeling that failure is waiting in the wings, and every unhappy moment is somehow weightless with the possibility of redemption.
The only issue I took with All True is one I take with most historical fiction (which, after all, is not usually my first pick when it comes to genre). In some ways I enjoy meandering through an entire life in a couple hundred pages, but in other ways I find the general plot arc of biographical fiction to be self-limiting. It’s hard to enforce a satisfying ending into a retelling of someone’s life, because real life is rarely so neat. The end to All True left me feeling hungry – although perhaps that’s my fault rather than the novel’s.
All in all: at first I was mystified to see a novel about the life of an American folk hero on the Giller longlist. By the time I finished All True, on the other hand, I was really only mystified that it didn’t make the shortlist – because, in my opinion, it really should have.