All True Not a Lie In It: In which I do not brag about reading historical fiction (that’s a lie)

090728daniel-boone1[Here’s something true: if you’re not me, you’re looking at this picture and you’re thinking, wait, is that Fess Parker playing Daniel Boone? If you are me, you’re thinking, Daniel Boone, now that name sounds faintly familiar, but who names their kid Fess?]

Here is something else true (and its not much of a brag, but it’s a bit of a brag): I’ve read a lot of Canadian historical fiction. I’m being loose with what counts as Canadian here. And with historical. And fictional (think Pierre Berton). I’m not reporting my historical fiction habit for the congratulations and admiration (though I’d take both), but more to say that when I read a new novel in the genre, I’ve got a lot to compare it with. Like if you’re a wine drinker (looking at you C & R) you can describe the subtle differences and tasting notes because you pay attention and you’ve had a lot of it. Really what I’m saying is that whatever you do or consume a lot of, you get to know the qualities and characteristics that make one thing great and another just okay. And that if maybe you didn’t consume so much of that one thing, you’d be more likely to think the thing that was ‘just okay’ was really great. Like without so many reference points for comparison you’d confuse vinegar for wine, right? I guess I’m just saying that historical fiction is my go-to wine, it’s the thing I’ll read because I can be certain I’ll enjoy (at the very least) its genre conventions and I can tell when my usual table wine has been swapped for a serious vintage or for something cheap and watery.

In the case of Alix Hawley’s All True Not a Lie In It I’d say we’ve got something of a ‘pretty good ‘ wearing the label of ‘really fucking awesome’. Take the title – great, right? If I were going to go back and re-write my thesis (an act of revisionist history in itself), I’d probably use the novel’s title to unpack the spectrum of history telling and the conventions of historiographic metafiction. I’d use the novel’s use of the present tense (which is actually obnoxious to read for 400 pages) to talk about the ways the genre blurs the boundary of issues and questions of the past with those of the present, making ‘present’ in its tense choice concerns about treaties and land rights, colonialism and the ‘post’-colonial and heredity and belonging. Except, well, the novel makes these concerns present, but without doing much more than showing them to the reader. To say ‘ah, I think maybe white settlers stole indigenous land and murdered people’ and ‘umm maybe Daniel Boone was a complicated man’ -so what? Why, after walking around with him on seemingly interminable journeys from one part of Pennsylvania to another part of Kentucky, does his story resonate, beyond being an interesting tale about a ‘American frontiersmen’?

So sure, the novel has some compelling plot bits and some decent descriptions of setting. It has the key features of the genre that I love – a playing about with truth and fiction, omission and imagination, opportunity for reimagining and awakening. Yet, with its historical star for a protagonist, he’s flat in the narrative (perhaps a relationship here? because he was ‘real’ there was less need to make the imaginative leap to make him a fully realized character on the page?). I didn’t believe his pain and didn’t much care for his survival. (I did appreciate that we see the mechanics of how his accidental heroism is constructed and glorified into a story of the nation and rugged American pioneering).  And the very key element I look for in great historical fiction – the resonance to the current moment – is made only tenuously through tense (or tense!ously) and without any of the potential punch it could deliver.

All this to say: go! read it if you’re interested in Daniel Boone’s biography. Read it if you have a passing interest in Little House on the Prairie (it reminded me a lot of the series, actually). Read it for the joy of the genre. But read it knowing you’re drinking a $12 bottle that’s being sold for $25.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction

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