My son is a huge fan of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, so I was eager to read her stand-alone novel, Ghost Hawk. Unfortunately, it sat on my shelf for far over a year, but I finally made time for it last month when I was sick and looking for engaging middle-grade novels to read. This cross of historical fiction and a (friendly) ghost story fit the bill perfectly and also fit my R.I.P. X Challenge.
In 1620, Little Hawk is the son of the Chief in his Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. They live a quiet life there, but excitement is coming for Little Hawk, as he prepares for his manhood test. He and the other boys his age in the village are each sent out into the wilderness on their own. Little Hawk must survive for three months on his own in complete solitude, with only his bow and arrows, a tomahawk whose blade was used by every generation of his family since his great-grandfather, and an extra-sharp metal knife that his father bartered from the white men who have recently arrived to their land. Little Hawk faces huge challenges, including a terrible blizzard, but he survives and becomes a man.
Meanwhile, a young boy named John Wakeley from the nearby Plymouth village of Puritan settlers meets Little Hawk and the rest of the village when the Wampanoag members teach the new settlers how to fish and plant in this New World. Though they speak different languages, the boys are able to communicate with each other and form a connection. When John is ten years old, he witnesses a horrific act of violence by men from his own village against an Indian, and he is forever changed by that experience, which further cements his connection with Little Hawk. However, as John grows older, he sees that the majority of Puritans do not share his vision of living peacefully side by side with the Wampanoag; most of his fellow citizens, in Plymouth and beyond, see the Indian tribes as savages to be conquered because their ways of life are different and they do not share the Puritan’s religious beliefs.
Although there is a supernatural element to this riveting story, it is clear that it is also based strongly on historical fact (Cooper’s notes at the back support this). Her descriptions of the daily lives of both the Wampanoag and the Puritans are detailed and fascinating and would make a compelling narrative even without the ghostly presence in the story, though that adds an extra element of intrigue. This is not the typical simplistic grade school portrayal of the Pilgrims and their first feast with their Indian friends but an eyes-wide-open account of religious intolerance by those who were themselves escaping religious persecution. It is not a one-sided story – Cooper makes it clear that the Native tribes were often warring among themselves long before the Puritans arrived – but still, the weight of how the Europeans decimated the Native Americans is truly sobering.
Beyond the history, this is a compelling story of two young people from entirely different worlds who form a friendship that lasts a lifetime. I was looking for something light and easy to read while sick, since I was having trouble concentrating on my grown-up books, but what I found was so much more: a novel that completely captivated me from beginning to end and left me thinking about it for weeks afterward. It is a gripping story not easily forgotten.
328 pages, Margaret K. McElderberry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Kids (and adults!) who enjoy Ghost Hawk might also like The Thirteenth Child, the beginning of a trilogy that also combines historical fiction and fantasy. Adult readers might enjoy Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, an excellent historical novel that also deals with the Wampanoag tribe's interactions with white settlers, a bit later in time.