Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wednesday, July 10, 2013: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Ghost Hawk

Margaret K. McElderry Books: Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

Margaret K. McElderry Books: Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

Atheneum Books for Young Readers: The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

Atheneum Books for Young Readers: The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer

Ghost Hawk

by Susan Cooper

Ghost Hawk begins with the beauty of a place--its life-giving, life-sustaining beauty--with human beings as the stewards of its waters and shores, plants and animals. Little Hawk and his family have lived on and cared for this land for many generations.

Readers meet Little Hawk, of the Pokanoket Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation, when he is 11 winters old, as he prepares for his proving time. His mother and sister attempt to slip in some extra supplies, but his father intervenes. He gives his son a bow, a knife he got by trading his furs to a white man, and a tomahawk many years in the making. Its stone blade had belonged to Little Hawk's grandfather, and his father before him. Its handle had grown strong over the span of the boy's life as two strands of a bitternut hickory tree grew together, on an island in a saltmarsh. It was his father's work of art, with time as collaborator. "In my father's day, there was still time," says Little Hawk.

In prose that flows like poetry, Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising) establishes the sense of abundant time and land. Through Little Hawk's voice, she also conveys a sense of foreboding. Readers observe the rhythms of Little Hawk's daily life, his close relationship with his family, his peers and his village, as well as his closely attuned sense of his surroundings. Three other boys have come of age and will also begin their proving time, but each must accomplish his journey alone. As Little Hawk's father says, "He will come back a man."

After many tests, Little Hawk completes his quest--and returns to a village wiped out by plague. Only his grandmother, Suncatcher, remains. "The scar on your face says that you have come through danger," Suncatcher tells him. The destruction of his village is the first sign that the white settlers have made an irreversible change to their way of life. Little Hawk, Suncatcher and Leaping Turtle, who also returns safely from his proving time, join with another nearby village. The tribal leader, Yellow Feather, has chosen to offer help and friendship to the white settlers. But Yellow Feather suspects that it will not be enough; as an elder of the village explains, "I think our father Yellow Feather fears that they want the land."

Cooper portrays the range of attitudes toward the white settlers through Yellow Feather and his approach, his fellow villagers who are more skeptical of the settlers, and Squanto, who's aligned himself with the settlers. In a pivotal scene in the book, Squanto leads a group of the settlers into the Pokanoket village--the first white men that Little Hawk has ever seen. A white boy just five winters old is with them. Suncatcher offers the men and boy some of her freshly made fish soup, they--politely--refuse it ("The white man is not good at eating our food," Squanto explains). The unwitting rudeness makes a striking contrast to greeting-card images of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down together at the first Thanksgiving. It's a hint at the kind of misunderstanding that builds into tragic consequences later in the novel.

The scene soon shifts to that of young John Wakely, the child visitor who was five winters old in the Pokanoket village that day. The narrative moves from the serene, elegiac tone of Little Hawk's narrative set in his village to the quickening pace and cacophony of sounds in the Puritan settlement. Through John's perspective, readers gain exposure to the strong views at opposite ends of the settlers' spectrum: those who believe the newcomers should honor the ways of the Native Americans, learn their language and live peacefully beside them, and others who perceive the differences between the two cultures as a chasm. They judge even their own, less rigorously religious countrymen harshly. They cannot imagine that the Pokanokets could have traditions or an ethical code as strong as their own. John, at age 10, nearly the same age as Little Hawk was when he entered his proving time, witnesses an event of such injustice that it shapes the man he will become.

At the heart of the conflict lies the settlers' conviction that one can own land outright, and the Native American belief that the land and all of its bounty belongs to the Great Spirit--no human could own it. Cooper skillfully structures a novel in which young readers come to see the misunderstanding take root, through the eyes of two sympathetic characters--Little Hawk, of the Wampanoag Nation, and John, who arrives with the white settlers. Few characters are all bad or all good. She allows us to see the complexities and motives--mainly a desperation to survive and to preserve the values they hold dear--on both sides. A timeline and author's note credit the primary sources and other documents Cooper used in her research.

This moving and thought-provoking novel invites young readers to consider the lasting legacy of the conflict between the first people who lived in this land we call America and the new arrivals who began to claim it for themselves. Little Hawk and John Wakely may be fictional characters, but they stand in for hundreds of real human beings, past and present, and their love of the land and their dream of peace. --Jennifer M. Brown

Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster, $16.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 10-14, 9781442481411, August 27, 2013

Margaret K. McElderry Books: The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper: Listening to the Land

©Tsar Fedorsky Photography 2013

Seven years ago, Susan Cooper built a house on an island in Massachusetts, the setting for Ghost Hawk. "It is not possible to live here without listening to the land, and to its past," she told us.

Cooper has always felt connected to her surroundings, having grown up deeply rooted in the British Isles. Nearly 40 years ago, when Cooper was cross-country skiing in New England, the winter landscape seized her imagination and combined with her homesickness for the England of her early novel Over Sea, Under Stone. The result was The Dark Is Rising, which received a 1974 Newbery Honor, and its sequels, including The Grey King, which won the 1976 Newbery Medal. In 2012, Cooper won the Margaret A. Edwards Award for the body of her work. With Ghost Hawk, she views the island from the points of view of a Native American boy and an English boy whose countrymen want to claim it as theirs.

How did you get started in children's books?

I was a reporter on the Sunday Times [in London], and one day the literary editor showed me a press release, saying the original publishers of E. Nesbit were running a contest for a family adventure story. He said, "Why don't you go in for this?" So I started to write one, but by chapter two, I found this character called Merriman, who had his roots in a Merlin figure. And the book turned into a fantasy, which disqualified it for the competition, but gave me Over Sea, Under Stone.

Do you think you'd have started writing for young people if not for that competition?

Who knows? The book I'd written before that was published as science fiction, a kind of dystopian adult book.

Why the long hiatus between Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark Is Rising? And then that burst of productivity with those last four books?

I was sorry to leave the characters when I finished Over Sea, Under Stone, so the book is kind of open-ended. There had been a huge switch in my life, because my newspaper had sent me to the United States. While I was here, I met a 46-year-old widower with three teenage kids. I was 27. He started popping up in London, and we got married--to my editor's horror. So I moved here for good, which was a bit traumatic, but I didn't stop writing. Once I was living in the States, I was writing a column for an English paper, a book about America and a biography of the English author J.B. Priestley.

I was skiing, and I wanted to write a book set in snow. Then I happened to reread Over Sea, Under Stone. I was terribly homesick, and I sat there and wrote down the outline of the series of sequels, the five books of the Dark Is Rising series, of which Over Sea had been written over a decade before. I also wrote the last paragraph of the last book. It's part of an exhibit right now in England, at the Bodleian Library [Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle Earth], which includes Philip Pullman, Alan Garner and me. And, of course, Lewis and Tolkien. They've got my last half-page.

You say of your home that it's "not possible to live here without listening to the land." How did it first speak to you?

I'm looking out of my study window now, at creeks through a green saltmarsh stretching towards the Atlantic Ocean. I think I've always had a sense of place, and the history of place, looking at something and wondering what it might have been. Living with this all around me, it became overwhelming--the sense of "has it changed?" Certainly it was looking like this when the English first came to the States, which of course were not yet the States.

I did about five years of reading for this book. It was an enormous mixture of anything that's a historical record plus what you would call natural history--the ecology of the place. From being possessed by the place, I found my imagination populating it: first one character, Little Hawk, who was a Native American boy, then after a while another--a first-generation immigrant. The book is the intertwined stories of these two. The stresses and strains and tensions between the people who lived here and the people invading the country changed everything. These boys suffer from that.

How did you decide on that structure for the novel?

To some extent, it happened as it went along. I knew I had the two boys. I knew I wanted to be with Little Hawk during those three months of his proving time. I wanted to feel what it was like.

I think [Little Hawk's] meeting John the first time, with the fishing, was something that happened when I was writing. All the time after that, I had to sit with the historical framework in front of me. I said to my editor, "Don't ever let me do this again." There's an iron framework, and you can't change it. Everything in the lives of my two characters had to fit the frame. You're writing for kids, and you've got to get it right.

How did you research the traditions so crucial to Little Hawk's evolution as a character?

This is the difficult thing. There's no one who can tell you what life was like 320 years ago. You can read every single piece of writing that was written down then, and hope you're getting it right. When all is said and done, it's a novel based on historical background.

The Dramatists Guild once asked 20 playwrights of differing ethnic backgrounds this question: "Are we ethically entitled to write outside of our own ethnicity?" Nearly every one of them said, "If you're respectful and do your research as far as it's possible to do research, it is not wrong to write within someone else's ethnicity," which of course is what I've done in trying to be Little Hawk. I hope Native Americans won't object on principle; I hope they'll read the book.

These early chapters demonstrate to readers how closely connected the Native Americans are to the land. You write, "Thousands more of the white men continued to arrive from over the sea, and their settlements multiplied and spread, as our father Yellow Feather and other sachems sold them the use of land. This selling was not what either side thought it should be." Is this the crux of the matter?

Yes. The English had this arrogance, the moment they set foot on the continent; they assumed they could take ownership of it, as if land was a thing you could buy. But for the people who lived here, the land is not a thing, it was their world. The environmental movement today--and the Gaia Principle, thinking of the Earth as a sentient thing, an organism--all this is related to the way the Native Americans treated the land.

John is 10 when he witnesses a pivotal event that shapes the person he will become. Is there something about that age that's significant? In The Dark Is Rising, Will Stanton discovers on his 11th birthday that he is the Sign-Seeker, last of the immortal Old Ones.

It's the age I always find myself writing about. The age on the cusp of puberty, before the hormones begin and you get that one overriding preoccupation--a good subject for stories, but not the kind of story I'm writing. I remember how it felt to be that age. There's an awareness of right and wrong, and a hope that you can combat evil.

In your the Dark Is Rising quintet and in Ghost Hawk you create worlds in which the supernatural or spiritual resides easily in everyday life.

I think it comes of growing up in a country with such layers of history and prehistory. When I was a kid I walked past Windsor Castle, which is 900 years old, and a grassy mound that was an Iron Age fort. At one point a farmer dug up a field, and found a Roman mosaic--we were ruled by the Romans for 400 years. You have an awareness, a sense of all the people who ever lived here. That's the great irony of the English invading others, when their own country was made up of one invasion after another, driving us all West.

At the memorial service for Margaret McElderry, you gave a wonderful talk. You didn't know what to write next, and you'd said, 'I feel as if my talent had just died!' And she replied, ''Yes, well, that can happen." How did you get past that period then, and how do you get past it now?

That was a prize example of my beloved editor opening the mouth and putting in the foot. At my age we all, between books, think, "I've written myself out," and then another idea comes along. There's a lovely quote, which I've written in the front of my diary, from Russell Hoban. He said at 78, the age I am now, "From now on I'm going to write a book every year, because when the tank is getting empty, I think you drive a little faster."

What do you do when you're between books?

If it's not wintertime, I'm likely to go for long walks. You can't force an idea. An idea is like a butterfly, it comes and goes, and you have to be careful not to squash it when you try to catch it.

There are some books that I go on rereading between books. Things like Eliot's "Four Quartets," the Mabinogion, Walter de le Mare's "Come Hither" and Robert Graves's White Goddess--old friends that I plug myself into. My imagination responds to them, I suppose. I look out of the window at the sea, at the marsh and listen for an idea. --Jennifer M. Brown

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