The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.
Review: Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper
By Judy Digby
There is a clue in the title and the cover that this book is about Native Americans. The old map is of Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, the time of the Pilgrim Fathers, with green leaves growing over it. And there is a solitary, independent feel as the protagonist looks out on the vast landscape. Oh, and there’s a quote from Philip Pullman saying how he likes the book – there’s a surprise.
There are surprises in the book, but I don’t want to spoil them. The story opens and closes on an island in the salt marshes, a place where fresh and salt water meet and the book is about the meeting of the English settlers with the indigenous (or at least much, much earlier settler) peoples. It evokes a strong sense of place and of time and has the power to transport you to the different communities and to imagine what it was like to be alive then.
Some ‘real’ historical figures are introduced, like Squanto, the Native American who had been to England and Yellow Feather or Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoag, and Pilgrim Fathers Edward Winslow and Roger Williams. The third part of the book ‘Burning Moon’ runs through the history of Hawk’s people and shows the development of free-thinking Providence for the settlers but it does not feel like a history lesson. The imagined ‘real’ characters and the purely fictitious ones are strongly drawn and the complex issues are skilfully raised, It achieves what a good historical novel should, I believe, in that my imagination and empathy were stirred and it set me thinking hard and looking things up. In ‘Afterwards’ the shameful timeline of the state-sanctioned shrinking of the indigenous peoples’ territories is presented in a cold, bare, factual way in the author’s voice.
The first part of the book ‘Freezing Moon’ is seen through the eyes of eleven year old Little Hawk and narrated by him as he prepares for and undergoes a three month trial of solitude in the woods in winter, following the old traditions. He finds his spirit guide, lives off roots and hunted animals, kills a wolf and survives a snowstorm. He come back a man but not to the village as he left it, as the white man’s plague has swept through, leaving only his grandmother. They join survivors of other villages. When they meet some white men in friendship and teach them to fish, he encounters seven-year old John Wakely ‘ a very unafraid boy’. Later John recognises Little Hawk by his scar and fatefully calls him by name to help free his trapped father.
Then the book changes perspective in ‘Planting Moon’ but Hawk becomes intertwined with John Wakely’s life as a stepson and apprentice in the settler communities and continues to narrate the story with inside knowledge so there is a very cleverly crafted continuity. Little Hawk’s tomahawk, with its handle grown from intertwining branches, is saved and revered by John, who has a strong sense of justice and respect for the tribal people. He also becomes a champion of freedom of conscience in belief and the separation of church and state. His brave and independent actions show how one person can make a difference, the author seems to be saying.
Rachel, the artist in modern times, who finally buries the tomahawk under a growing tree in ‘Ripening Moon’ and helps Little Hawk to be free, when asked if she is Wompanoag, shrugs and says: “There are all kinds of tribes in me, most of them from across the ocean, And I don’t belong to any of them. If human beings weren’t so big on belonging to groups, I don’t believe they’d fight wars.” That is one of the messages of the book and another is that “the land belongs to no one. The land is.” (p329) It is “the story of a boy and an axe, a tree and an island” (p142) and satisfying as such, but with much metaphor and symbolism to meditate on.
I found the book gripping, thought-provoking, poetic and atmospheric but I can’t read as a ten year or a teenager any more. Can Susan Cooper write for young people as she approaches her eighties? (She is so wonderfully old that when she read English at Oxford she was taught by Tolkien and C.S.Lewis.) I think she probably can, but it is for them to respond.