Liza Ketchum’s Where the Great Hawk Flies

Posted: September 24, 2008 in aboriginality, alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, Liza Ketchum, race

Ketchum, Liza.  Where the Great Hawk Flies.  New York: Clarion, 2005.

The two alternating narrators are two boys, one a blond-headed newcomer to a small Vermont community whose family suffered in an Indian raid during the revolutionary war a while back, the other a dark-haired son of an English man and a Pequot woman (with Mohegan blood also). who also, it turns out, suffered the same raid  As a result of the raid, Hiram, the blond boy, hates “Injuns,” calls Daniel, the other boy, that on first meeting him, and the two are instant enemies.  Furthermore, Hiram’s mother hates the idea of living next door to an Indian family; and the situation worsens when Hiram’s uncle shows up, an escaped prisoner and survivor of the Indian raid, quite deranged, and filled with loathing for Injuns also.  Daniel has a relative appear also–his grandfather, an old man who dresses in the traditional aboriginal way and dares to build himself and his grandchildren a tipi.

These two newly arrived relatives–extreme versions of the values and actions of their families–suggest a kind of contrapuntal symmetry.   Hiram’s uncle is clearly dangerous, his extreme prejudice clearly foolish–and the novel seems to suggest that the community’s decision to run him out of town is the only possibly correct way of dealing with him.  He must be expunged lest he poison their ability to be communal.  Interestingly, then, on a parallel path it seems that the Indian grandfather has to be expunged also.  He represents an even greater sensitivity to the world of nature and spirits than his daughter does–she is the Indian doctress everyone in the community comes to in need, and she manages to help them all–but he clearly represents old ways, building a wigwam, etc. and the theoretically sad element in the ending of the book is the grandfather’s death after doing what he can to help his daughter save Hiram’s mother and the two weak twins she has given birth to.  He seems to die of exhaustion, a long life necessarily and inevitably coming to an end.  but in the light of the parallels already established, and in the light of his representation as the most authentic aboriginal in the book, it seems that his leaving is as much mandated as the crazy uncle’s–that somehow he, too, in his extreme Indiannness, must be expunged so that the community can grow.   That community, a sort of prototype for the new nation it will soon be part of, can allow and embrace aboriginal practices and values–but not in their purest and separate form any more than they can accept racial prejudice.  They must be modified and practiced by others of non-aboriginal descent in order not to be too dangerous.  In other words: despite a history of being there first, aborginality is now just a culture equivalent to any of the other cultures in the American mix, and equally needing dilution and intermixing.  Furthermore, her represents Indianness–and he dies, as presumably, then, original Indianness has died also (and note: he thus becomes another dead Indian, another placing of true aboringality in a now-gone past, as in The Place at the Edge of the Earth. This has strong and to my mind clearly negative political implications that the author may or may not have been aware of.

The novel, then, becomes a story of how a multicultural community operates, and how it has to find balances between pure and distinct races and ethnicities on the one hand and pure and counter-productive prejudice on the other.   The boys, of course, can (and indeed in the realm of children’s fiction must) become friends–and they can do it primarily in terms of of how Hiram loses his prejudices and learns about and adopts Indian customs and values and objects–he gets kind of Indianized.  At the same time, Daniel is resisting some of his own Indianness–not wanting to become a powwaw (in touch with the spirits) like his grandfather or a healer like his mother, but he also loves the grandfather he sees as being significantly different from himself, and he too eventually learns to embrace the wigwam and other aspects of half of his background–although significantly, he resists other aspects of them.  Both boys then become ‘balanced” on these matters–accepting of and making use of aboriginal culture, but without total and absolute commitment to it.  it has been, in a sense, defanged, made less dangerous, and so now can become part of the new American communal mix.  in this way, our contemporary liberal humanist eclecticism (“I’m spiritual but not religious”) triumphs over what surely might have been more likely in the eighteenth century?

Am I being too harsh and critical about this?  I’d say I was if I hadn’t been finding these themes so often in children’s and young adult books about meetings between Aboriginal youths and European ones.  Part of my research on novels with alternating narratives has focussed on Canadian novels of that sort: books like Monica Hughes’ Log Jam, Welwyn Katz’s False Face, Kevin Major’s Blood Red Ochre, Martha Brooks’ Bone Dance, Greg Jackson Davis’s Digging for Philip, Joan Clark’s The Dream Carvers.  (I discuss these in “At Home on Native Land: A Non-Aboriginal Canadian Scholar Discusses Aboriginality and Property in Canadian Double-Focalized Novels for Young Adults,” a chapter in Home Words: Discourses of Children’s Literature in Canada , edited by my colleague Mavis Reimer and now available from Wilfred Laurier UP.)  The plots of these novels almost always involve disputes about who owns something–a plot of land, a traditional aboriginal artifact, etc., and that clearly resonates in terms of contemporary and ongoing disputes about native land claims in Canada.  And the novels almost always resolve the dispute by giving the disputed thing or place over to the care of anyone of any race or background who adopts what are presented as being aboriginal values–which usually are some version of a new-agey ecological spirituality about respect for the planet and all creatures on it, and a dislike for fatcat capitalists, factories and frozen entrees.  Usually this means that what is identified as having originally been aboriginal now actually belongs to people of European background who have adapted to the place by becoming sort of “aboriginal.”  Where the Great Hawk Flies is clearly doing a version of that, as at the end, after the grandfather dies and takes much of his wisdom and expertise in traditional ways with him, the boys and Daniel’s white father try to figure out from what’s left in their and Daniel’s mother’s fading memories how to make a traditional dugout canoe and so on.  They adopt and continue the existence of traditional aboriginality by adapting it to become part of their new multicultural milieu, which allows more than one culture by diluting all of them and now allowing pure versions of any of them in the new mix.

Something else happens here that also happens in so many books by non-aboriginal people about aboriginals–an identification of native characters with nature, animals, the earth, etc. which purports to represent their special strength and wisdom but also insists on making them different from (and as animal-like, in most traditional thinkng of all cultures, less human than) characters of European descent.  Here there are many references to a hawk that appears when anything important happens.  It turns out that a hawk appears to have guided both boys to hiding places during the earlier Indian raid, long before they knew each other or had the connection that becomes so important to the theme of the novel later.  And at the end, there’s a connection made between the hawk which appears again and the spirit of the dead grandfather.  He has become this natural protective spirit, the approving  spirit of the new multicultural world that’s blooming here.  As the key representative of traditional aboriginal culture, then, he signals an aboriginal and natural approval of lands being taken over and old ways either dying or being adapted to the new and primarily Eurocentric culture that Danial and Hiram in their coming together as friends represent.

A fascinating novel.

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Comments
  1. […] represent and personify their diminishing and extinction: see, for instance, Ketchum’s Where the Hawk Flies or Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth for other examples of the same conventional […]

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