Little Hawk is nearly eleven when his father takes him deep into the forest and leaves him there with just the clothes on his back, a knife, bow and arrows, and a tomahawk. Hawk must survive, alone, through three hard months of winter, fending for himself against the wild and the weather. When he returns – if he returns - he will be a man.
We see through Little Hawk’s eyes as he looks for shelter, food and his Manitou – his spirit guide. He faces off with wolves and deer, freezes through storms, and nearly drowns in a lake. But this is only the beginning of his story: when he returns from his sojourn, Little Hawk must remain strong and brave in the face of terrible loss; a loss that only scratches the surface of what is to follow in the coming years.
This is an incredible book. Through Little Hawk’s way of life, Susan Cooper makes us feel a strong connection to the world, to the land and the animals, to Hawk’s people and to his past, the echoes of the generations that came before him and the echoes of the generations to come behind. But past and future echoes are quickly silenced by the arrival of the colonists: this is the 1600s, and the whites from across the oceans have arrived in force.
At first, colonists and natives help each other, and it seems as if they will be able to live alongside one another, but soon everything is cut short, the differences between the two populations as stark as the contrast between the beginning of Ghost Hawk and the chapters that follow in part two and beyond.
“In this world, one small thing leads to another small thing, and they twine within time to cause events, both good and terrible,” Hawk tells us.
Early on, Little Hawk is befriended by John Wakeley, a little boy a couple of years Hawk’s junior. John doesn’t think of Hawk as being any different to himself, but he’s surrounded by people who think otherwise: when he tries to challenge those around him, when he tries to highlight their hypocrisy, he’s shunned and shut down. But John is determined and brave and seeks to find a way to live on the terms that he believes are right, to hold to the truth of a memory that haunts him. What does the future hold? Can he make things right?
At times, the history tied up in Little Hawk’s story made me feel almost physically sick: the attitudes of many settlers towards Little Hawk’s people, their assumptions made about them because they don’t conform to the white interpretation of civilization, the uncaring dismissal of their rights and beliefs. It’s disgusting and, from what I can tell, things don’t seem to be much better even today. America is a country built on blood and murder, theft and lies, the native nation brought to its knees, destroyed and gutted by white arrogance. No matter how much trust Little Hawk’s people try to put in the settlers, it is mostly only repaid in distrust.
Wise Little Hawk watches it all as it passes before his eyes:
“This was how they thought of our mother the earth, these white men: as a place full of things, put here by their God for them to use.”
Ghost Hawk is a beautiful rendering of the tragic and heartbreaking effects of colonisation on Native American peoples. I am so happy that it has been shortlisted for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, because otherwise I probably would never have picked it up. It will make you cry and rage at the injustice, at the loss of all that history, of what our ancestors did these people. Susan Cooper’s storytelling is exquisite and powerful, evocative and emotional; I can’t recommend it enough, for teenagers and adults alike.