A thoroughly researched historical novel reimagines the life of 18th-century frontiersman Daniel Boone, transforming him into a brooding observer of the fall of a country he’d like to consider Paradise.
The first novel by short story writer Hawley (The Old Familiar, 2008) uses as a framework what is known of Boone’s life, beginning with his impoverished childhood in a Quaker community in Pennsylvania and ending, rather abruptly, as the Indians who have either, depending on one’s perspective, captured or adopted him prepare to attack the fort Boone and others have built in Kentucky. (A sequel is evidently in the works.) In between, Boone witnesses—and causes—many a death, marries, fathers a bunch of children, moves his family several times, sets off on hunts that last months or years, is captured by Indians, escapes, and is captured again. The close adherence to chronology makes for an episodic novel in which the only consistent character is Boone himself. The frontiersman tells his story, presumably from the point of view of old age but in the present tense. The world he describes, full of squalor and natural beauty and blood, is richly detailed, and the dialogue sharp and well-trimmed. Boone himself, however, often seems more literary device than believable character. Depressive and romantic, he is continually haunted by an increasingly crowded swarm of ghosts, beginning with the brother who died when Boone was an adolescent and the horse he had to kill when it broke its leg. While not much is known of Boone’s inner life, since he left few written records, his actions don’t necessarily jibe with the introspective, language-besotted dreamer Hawley creates, the one who often feels that he is living in “a long half-dream.”
The novel sets out to take Daniel Boone from myth to man—but in the process, it transplants him into another sort of literary myth.