Monday, December 2, 2013

Nothing to be thankful for

I was too old to read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence as a child, so I've come to her books as an adult. I discovered the mellifluous tones of narrator Alex Jennings listening to those five books (he doesn't read The Grey King, presumably because of all the Welsh), but oddly haven't heard him read anything else. Maybe I'm getting my Alex-Jennings jones met through his movies. Anyway, I've always admired Cooper's work, but I don't have the connection to it that many others have, including a colleague who tells me that she re-reads The Dark is Rising every year as the days grow short. I'm not sure why I requested a copy of her latest novel, Ghost Hawk, through the Audiobook Jukebox. Jim Dale, maybe?

Ghost Hawk begins as a straightforward work of historical fiction, introducing us to Little Hawk and his Pokanoket people shortly after the arrival of English settlers in what is now Massachusetts. Little Hawk is sent away from his tribe for his ritual test of manhood; surviving three winter months alone. He returns to tragedy: disease introduced by the white settlers has wiped out his village -- just his grandmother and one sister survived. This small family is absorbed into a neighboring village, but life for the Wampanoag Nation will never be the same.

When the village is harvesting oysters a few years later, Little Hawk meets a young white boy who tells him his name is John Wakeley. This meeting proves fateful several years later when Little Hawk attempts to help John and his father -- who has been struck down by a falling tree.

BIG SPOILER (but it's really not possible to give a complete idea of this book without it).

John witnesses the death of Little Hawk, shot in the chest by another settler; a man who claimed that Little Hawk was threatening John. This individual believes the Indians to be savages and becomes an enemy of John as he grows up. For some reason that I missed in the listening, Little Hawk's spirit cannot rest and he continues his first-person narration as an observer of John's life (and of history in general). He is even able to show himself to John in a particular place and Little Hawk and John grow close. John's relationship with Little Hawk enlightens him -- he learns Little Hawk's language and, as a young man, he leaves the Plymouth area to move to Roger Williams' community of New Providence, a community of true religious freedom and trade and respect for the original residents.

However, even Providence can't escape the events leading up to King Philip's War, as 50 years of white encroachment on Wampanoag lands finally boils over. Little Hawk is helpless to watch as his people lose the first of many conflicts with their conquerors. The story ends two centuries later as his spirit is finally freed.

I'm going to attempt to steer away from any contro- versy about this book, and simply say it wasn't particularly interesting. Cooper is flying her liberal flag, making it very clear that she disapproves of the ways that the native peoples were treated by her ancestors. So, Ghost Hawk feels like a long lecture -- on the humble yet honest way of the Indian, on the irony of the Pilgrims leaving their home for religious freedom yet insisting on conformity by all settlers and that their God's way insists on the eradication of the "savages," on American History itself. While I agree that it is important for young readers to learn these things, the message is so heavy-handed and takes up so much of the story that I'm not sure I would have finished had Jim Dale not been reading it to me.  I'm not sure I can see many kids sticking with it.  It's not really about kids, actually, which I find a serious drawback in a book for children.

The magical realism of the human boy and his fantastical mentor that Cooper has revisited many times in her work just doesn't have the same mystical and profound enchantment here; think of The Dark is Rising's Great Uncle Merry or even of William Shakespeare in King of Shadows. We only know that John and Little Hawk have this heartfelt friendship because Little Hawk tells us they do.

I enjoyed Jim Dale's narration, but I think he is somewhat miscast here. Dale's skills are the fantastic creatures, bringing out the humor in a story, using that little vocal quaver he has to express deep emotion. In Ghost Hawk, he has to rein all that in. He is much like the novel's Puritans in his seriousness. Here we get back to the idea of this novel as a long lecture -- Professor Dale is leading the class and we're glad he's there because he's making it the slightest bit interesting, but he doesn't have much to work with.

Dale does have opportunities here to demonstrate his skills with characterization and accents -- although I found it odd that our narrator, Little Hawk, speaks like an Englishman. I mean, I don't need Sherman Alexie's voice reading this, but it seemed peculiar that Little Hawk sounds just like the English settlers ... while some of the English settlers had regional accents.  And, there's no doubt that Dale delivers the emotions of this story (violent death makes more than one appearance). His sad, sombre voice throbs with loss.

Unlike the just-previous audiobook for youth I listened to, the backmatter (in the form of a timeline [always a bit treacherous to listen to] and an author's note) is included. Dale reads the timeline and Cooper -- in a pleasant husky voice -- reads her note. The timeline fortunately isn't just a listing of dates, but is in full, informative sentences. Its focus is the unending removal of native people from their traditional lands and is deeply depressing, and it puts a little tarnish on Abraham Lincoln that I didn't know about. Dale reads it with conviction.

The intro and outro music is nicely evocative, with a drum and a flute that -- to my white ears -- signifies a Native American story. Interestingly, the publisher got the author and narrator together for one of those brief conversations you hear so often in audiobooks, but it never made it to the audiobook. It's just five minutes long and you can listen to it here.

As is my wont, listening to this audiobook leads me to others: Should I go with the season and listen to The Dark is Rising (which I have only eye-read), or perhaps try another Alex Jennings narration? I read King of Shadows before I read The Dark ...  sequence, maybe I should listen to that one (narrated -- in what I think is better casting -- by Jim Dale).

Simon & Schuster Audio gave me this audiobook through the Solid Gold Reviewer program. I am thankful.

[My generation was raised on the myth of The First Thanksgiving, and here it is in all its misconceptions/romanticizations/straightforward error. This is a reproduction of a postcard from the Library of Congress made from a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. (This meal/celebration/meeting is mentioned only in passing in Ghost Hawk, as the events of the novel take place afterwards.)]

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper
Narrated by Jim Dale
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 8:50

No comments: