Alix Hawley’s My Name Is a Knife is the sequel to her acclaimed 2015 novel All True Not a Lie in It, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The previous volume introduced us to someone we thought we already knew: legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone. The mythology surrounding this character is renowned, but who was Boone, really? This is the question that motivates Hawley’s novels, both of which are graphically detailed, psychologically probing, and often gripping in the moment but, considered together, not entirely satisfying.
All True Not a Lie in It follows Boone’s life from his childhood with Quaker parents to his long captivity with the Shawnee. During these years, Boone becomes renowned as an explorer, hunter, and trapper; fights for the British during the French and Indian War; marries and becomes a father; and has many close encounters with the local tribes as he and other settlers push further into Kentucky – territory which appears to Boone like the promised land: “It seems to me that I have been dreaming of this place without knowing how to say it, without giving it a name.” Two incidents have particularly dramatic and personal repercussions: Boone’s son James is gruesomely slaughtered while on an expedition to get supplies; later, Boone’s daughter Jemima is captured by the Shawnee and then rescued by Boone and his men – one of the exploits that contributed most to Boone’s fame.
During his time with the Shawnee – first as their prisoner and then as the adopted son of their chief, Black Fish – Boone learns to respect and even love some of the people whom circumstances have dictated must be his enemies. When the Shawnee plan an attack on the fort he founded, however, he must choose sides, and All True Not a Lie in It ends as he runs to warn the family and friends he left behind there. This is where My Name Is a Knife picks up the story. It continues so seamlessly, and would be so unintelligible without its predecessor, that it really is less an autonomous sequel than a second instalment of one unified saga.
Boone’s attempts to prepare the fort for the coming incursion and then negotiate a peaceful end to it are hindered by his companions’ suspicion of the “white Indian’s” motives. Hawley’s account of the siege is typically taut and energetic: “They had more powder than we believed. They were only waiting to use it. The shooting keeps up, they howl their war cries on and on, the pairs of them keep coming with burning branches. We are running out of bullets now, the children screaming endlessly, we all have run out of words.”
The fort withstands the onslaught but Boone is court-martialled for the promises of surrender he had made to the Shawnee after his capture. His defence that his concessions were strategic succeeds and he is freed to continue as before. He and his family move again and again, enjoying increasingly rare interludes of ease as the inexorable cycle of violence overcomes any hope of the peaceful coexistence Boone once dreamed of. “We killed his son, Moluntha’s son, at Paint Creek,” Boone, bloodstained and weeping, tells his long-suffering wife, Rebecca, after one catastrophic clash. “They killed our sons, Jamesie and Israel, but we killed his, without even knowing it. And I killed my own [adopted] father’s son myself, without knowing.” There is no heroism here, no glamour or glory: between the myth and the man lies a gulf of brutality and grief.
While All True Not a Lie in It is narrated entirely by Boone, My Name Is a Knife alternates between his voice and Rebecca’s. As well as offering a different perspective on Boone’s adventures – which take him far from her, sometimes for years at a time – she complements the novels’ graphic accounts of tracking, hunting, and fighting with details about women’s work, including her midwifery: “I close my ears and eyes to her, there is nothing but my slippery hand to see with. It finds the baby’s head pushed against Anna’s right hipbone, under the broken bag of waters, which I slide back.”
This added dimension, however, is both belated and insufficient to overcome the intermittent monotony that builds up over the two novels as one episode follows another with no deeper meaning beyond the unfolding chronology. The immediacy of the first-person narrators comes at the expense of any more penetrating insight into their historical context.
Hawley brilliantly conveys tactile particulars of time and place, but the best historical fiction does more than present the past as dramatic spectacle. It also engages us with ideas about it. It is unclear what story Hawley is ultimately offering to replace the tall tales that romanticized this phase of settler colonialism. She humanizes and complicates our picture of its participants, but in focusing so exclusively on the personal, she leaves the political implications of their dreams and actions unexamined.