Walking a Mile in Daniel Boone’s Moccasins
How a Vegetarian Canadian Took On the Voice of an American Legend
The whole idea behind my novel, All True Not a Lie in It, was a gamble. Once I was hit with the memory of an old National Geographic article about Daniel Boone, I couldn’t stop thinking about him and his story. I was hooked, utterly. But would other people want to read about a long-dead American frontiersman? (And, hang on, would they even know who he was?)
It took a lot of writing and rewriting. And one of the books that influenced me, perhaps surprisingly, was Lolita, whip-smart and shocking. It turns me into a gawper, a gasper—not so much for its horrors as for its own wild gamble. What writer can pull off the tale of an aging, predatory child molester without scattering readers like pigeons at a gunshot?
Nabokov can. His Humbert Humbert is one of literature’s most ghastly and sorry creations, but we find ourselves listening to him, following him across America, even as we recoil from his desires. Loathsome as he is, I will argue for this book every time. So why does Nabokov win? Why do we go along with Humbert into the dark?
We have Nabokov’s electric prose, of course. But we also have the character’s own words, his own voice: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
It’s the key. The gamble only succeeds because of it. If we’d had, instead, “His sin, his soul,” the book’s pull would have frayed like old rope. Well, I suppose I have a gambler’s heart, too. I rolled the dice and stepped into the first-person shoes, which I’d always found pinching. I fought it, writing draft after draft in other voices, until I caved. Fine. I, Daniel Boone. Double or nothing.
I walked around until the shoes fit. His voice is not my voice. He’s a rough, charismatic leader and a famous hunter; I’m female, fairly quiet, Canadian and vegetarian. But first person was the only voice for this book. Once I could hear it in my mind, I couldn’t shake it. I hope readers will follow me into Daniel’s shoes—and head—as he moves through the wilderness in search of perfection, a quest that leads to his daughter’s kidnap and his son’s murder. The aftermath is denial, guilt and hard suffering.
My story elides chronology in places, making guesses and filling in gaps for the sake of narrative. But I didn’t need an unreliable narrator—the story had plenty going on already—so I looked at complicated speakers, like Humbert, and how they tell us their stories.
And we want books to create a reality. To reanimate the 1700s, I had to plough up forests of detail and try to use what Daniel and his family would have known in a natural way: the Quaker meeting house of his childhood; the Appalachian wilderness he explored; the homes he and his wife, Rebecca, built; and the Delaware, Shawnee, Cherokee and Black lives that intersected with his. I read several biographies, including Lyman Draper’s The Life of Daniel Boone, a 19th-century rescue of Boone oral history and manuscripts, trying to expose the flavor of 18th-century life.
But the books that gave me what I most needed were fiction, Peter Carey’s and Hilary Mantel’s. Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang snares Ned Kelly’s wild mind and feeds it to us in pieces, letters and articles. Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, while in third person, give a similar feeling of an access-all-areas pass to someone’s brain. What works in these books is the uncanny sense that we’re listening to the characters while at the same time experiencing what it’s like to be them. We’re inside and outside. For me, this was the trick: We had to be able to see Daniel from both sides at once.
My Daniel Boone is talking to his dead, trying to turn himself inside out and see what he has done, and who he has become. This book is about what is lost, and what remains.
Feature image: detail from George Caleb Bingham’s Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap (1851-1852).