Ottawa Writers Festival: Tracking Daniel Boone with Alix Hawley

An engraving showing Daniel Boone.

B.C. native Alix Hawley has written a second novel about the iconic American frontiersman Daniel Boone. The first was called All True Not a Lie in It. This one is called My Name Is A Knife and it returns to Boone’s story after he is freed by his Shawnee captors and makes his way to the settlement he founded to warn the colonists there of trouble on the horizon. Before her appearance at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 28, she answered some questions from ARTSFILE about her books and her fascination with this important figure of early America.

Q. You have chosen to write  about one of America’s early “heroes.” Daniel Boone has that “larger than life”descriptor. Why?

A. I never planned to write anything about this time or place, let alone Daniel Boone specifically. But when I’d finished my first book, a short-story collection, an image from my childhood suddenly reappeared in my mind. It was an illustration from a National Geographic, and when I found it again in the library, I saw it was Daniel holding the body of his son, James, which I vaguely remembered having looked at as a kid. That image became the centre of the book for me. I was interested in what it must have been like to be a famous person during that time, but also, more deeply, in how it felt to lose a child through something you’ve done.

Q. Boone is symbolic of the western migration of American settlers. He was among the first wave into the interior of what is now the United States? What does he mean to you?

A. It’s hard to think of him as a symbol, because he became such a real person, with all the flaws and psychological quirks that entails, in my mind. I imagine he suffered a lot of contradictions and pulls from different sides, so those are images I attach to him. I hope anyone who knows nothing about him, or knows him only from the 1960s TV show, might find someone entirely different and more human here.

Q. To me, as you present him, he is a contradictory, weak and uncertain figure. Explain.

A. Yes, I do see him as contradictory, often uncertain, and sometimes very weak. Leadership is hard, as I looked at in both novels, and Daniel really struggles with it. Like most European settlers, he did exploit the Indigenous people he encountered, certainly taking land in the push westwards. But I think that more than some, he respected the Woodland first peoples’ way of life, learned much from it and preferred it to the settler life. That doesn’t excuse what he helped to do to the Shawnee and other groups — maybe it makes it even worse — but it shows a desire to connect that was present all too briefly.

Alix Hawley.

Q. There is also this restlessness about him that seems to always gnaw at his soul. Is that something you wanted to portray?

A. A lot of frontiersmen didn’t stay home much, out of necessity. They were hunting and trapping for survival and for money to support their families (they all seem to have had tons of kids.). Yet many seem to have enjoyed these long, semi-solitary trips into the wilderness. Wanderlust is the root of so many myths about North America. I wanted specifically to get at the idea that there is always somewhere “better” if you just pick up and move on, and at the damage that comes in the wake of it.

Q. Did you do a lot of research into his life? 

A. I love research! Because almost no documents in Daniel’s own words remain, I read biographies, pseudo-autobiographies, histories of the American Revolution and early frontier and Woodland peoples … anything that came up. I had to cut myself off. It is important to base a novel like this on deep research, so it feels real for both writer and readers, but that has to stop for me, so I can fill in the gaps with my imagination. We don’t know what Daniel  was thinking when he was taken captive, for instance, or when he ran away, or how he felt when he saw Rebecca again. Building those parts is the novelist’s real work.

Q. Speaking of Rebecca, how did you come to write about her?

She’s a momentous figure in All True, but often an absent one as Daniel is away so much. And there’s almost nothing about her in the historical record. We do know she raised a lot of children, including many that weren’t her own, and that she was a skilled midwife and medic. So those hints and that ghostliness intrigued me. In My Name is a Knife, I wanted to draw her out further. I wanted to know what her life would have been like, and how it would be to have been married to someone like Dan.

I had only a couple of hints to start to build her with, the main one being that she left the fort with her children when Daniel was gone and assumed to be a turncoat or dead. That departure was a pretty huge undertaking, and that gave me the initial idea of her strength. There’s also a record of her destroying a letter from Daniel, which gave me the idea for a pivotal scene. It took a long time to make her into a full character, but those little points really helped me.

Q. She allows Boone back into her life even after tragedy and long separation. Why does she do that? Why does she return with him to the West, even though she knows him?

A. Those are good questions, ones I grappled with too. We know she did take him back and then did return with him to Kentucky, the scene of so much horror for their family, and my job was to find a way to explain that. Practical considerations were part of it — the children’s love for their dad, and their need for his material support. Also, My Name is a Knife is among other things a portrait of a long marriage. I’ve seen some of those that have made me wonder how the couple has stuck it out together. It’s mysterious, and maybe not fully answerable from outside. But I wanted to explore that ebb and flow in a relationship, and I hope I got inside theirs.

Q. Boone’s relationship with Indigenous people is ambivalent. I think he comes to really respect his Shawnee father Blackfish and loves his Shawnee wife and child and yet does he do enough to develop good relations between white settlers and the Indigenous peoples?

A. He does respect and love Black Fish, Methoataske, and Eliza, and other members of his adoptive family, and he tries to hold off further division between the Shawnee and the white settlers. I think he’d say he did his best, and to be fair, a lot of the tragedy that transpires in My Name is a Knife isn’t directly Daniel’s doing. Is it enough? Probably not. But that’s part of the book’s tragedy — the impossibility of doing much individually, with such vast anti-Indigenous feeling brewing as the American Revolution took hold. That’s one of Boone’s sadnesses, and Black Fish’s too. The chief’s voice, and his attempts to control the situation, haunt me, probably even more than Daniel’s do.

Q. The book describes horrific mass killings by white settlers. How does that inform this novel?

A. There were horrific events everywhere at the time, but the spread of the settlers’ cruelty became uncontrollable. I wanted to show that in miniature with the siege of the fort in the first part of the novel, and with the casual mentions the whites make of Shawnee and Cherokee deaths later. The Indigenous retaliations were fierce, but increasingly overpowered by numbers or weapons. And their peace efforts were often taken poorly, with false agreements made by the settlers.

Q. Where does the title, My Name Is A Knife, come from?

A. It was a tough one to come up with. The manuscript was called “DB2” for the longest time. I wanted the title to reflect both the voices in the book, Daniel’s and Rebecca’s. They both dislike their own names for various reasons, and are hurt by things they’ve done. There’s also a lot of severing of relationships here, so the knife seemed like a perfect symbol. I was glad when it finally came to me.

Q. The book opens with a brief telling of the story of Madoc. Who is Madoc. Why do you mention him?

A. Madoc is a prince in some Welsh tales, and there are also weird tales of the Welsh arriving in North America long before anyone else. It seemed like a nice connection, and a way to get us into Rebecca’s mind and life, as she knows a lot of old stories.

Q. The other thing that is present in the novel are references to the story of Gulliver. Why? 

A. Gulliver’s Travels was actually Daniel’s favourite book. He used to take it with him on long hunts and read it in the evening by the fire. I think it was the thought of travelling endlessly that made him love it. It’s also pretty funny, and I’m sure he and Rebecca both had good senses of humour. I imagine that’s something that kept them together too.

Q. The book is dedicated to Theo. Who is he and why have you dedicated the book to him?

Theo is my wonderful son, who asked for this one to be dedicated especially to him and him only. My equally wonderful daughter has dibs on the next book. Both kids inspired some of the children in these novels.

My Name Is A Knife
Alix Hawley (Vintage Canada)
In town: Alix Hawley will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 28 on a panel with Wayne Grady and Ottawa writer Natalie Morrill hosted by ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.