He had left his canoe in the river, tied to a branch of a low-growing cherry tree.
Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk immediately transports you deep into the heart of the Pokanoket tribe in North America, with a protagonist and a society on the verge of a very big, irreversible change. It opens with a tribal tradition as Little Hawk is sent out into the wilderness for three months to learn, fight and survive the tribulations of nature’s winter in order to return to his tribe a man. On arriving back to the homestead, he is met with a horrific tragedy and slow realisation that the struggle for survival continues far beyond the reach of the forests.
Two lives are woven into one as Little Hawk and English settler John Wakeley cross paths and soon learn that where you come from is not as important as where you are going, as their personal journeys combine and begin to reflect the other.
Ghost Hawk is a perfectly delightful novel that deals with concepts of memory, respect, ownership and entitlement as it explores the years where two separate societies are forced to come together. The tension that arose between Native Americans and the first Puritan settlers is the main focus of the tale and Cooper’s personal opinion of the injustice felt, during the time and still, is overtly explored within the story. However, there are many different viewpoints put forward in the portrayal of a whole host of interesting characters and the audience soon learn the importance of tradition, a sense of self, and the power represented within a single tomahawk.
Halfway through the novel Cooper breaks one of the biggest taboos a write can make, something that it wasn’t until the words had been read that I dared to believe she would do it. Now, I’m not going to give the game away on this one but, for me, in doing what she did I immediately both admired and questioned her. The story loses some of its authenticity and flow by the choice the author makes at the end of Part 1 and as the story continues, the tightly woven thread and vivid social commentary she promisingly starts out with began to unravel for me. I was unable to understand how the narrative voice continued or why and the premise became a little too implausible to sustain the magic.
Ghost Hawk is a story divided into four main parts that explores the growing tension between the native people of New England and the settlers who begin to claim the land as their own and yet I felt that this story could easily have been, and would have made more sense, concluding half way or even three quarters of the way through. The ending felt forced, and whilst it is good to use fiction as a way of raising awareness for topics strongly felt by the author (something another Carnegie shortlist author, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, did wonderfully), Cooper is rather ramming it home.
All told, however, it is perfectly delightful read and a well thought out historical novel with an interesting subject matter. It takes a massive risk, narratively speaking, and, very nearly, pulls it off however I would be surprised if this won the Carnegie as I think there are stronger titles in the shortlist.