Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I posted Beverly Slapin's review of Where the Great Hawk Flies some time ago, but not as a stand-alone review. It was included in a post about a VOYA article. In case you missed it then, here it is. I use it with her permission. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

Ketchum's book is one of those that gets favorable reviews from the mainstream review journals. Booklist gave it a starred review. Kirkus called it "terrific historical fiction." VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocates) said it is "written with beautiful, touching metaphors and authentic speech." I note these favorable reviews, because far too many of the mainstream journals fail again and again to do even an adequate job of reviewing books about American Indians. It is frightening, and outrageous, that the children's book publishing industry continues to give kids awful books like Where the Great Hawk Flies. Writers keep coming up with these messed-up books, editors at publishing houses keep accepting them, reviewers keep on giving them positive reviews, teachers and librarians keep buying them, and all the children who read them are worse off than before! Here's Slapin's review.
Ketchum, Liza, Where the Great Hawk Flies. Clarion Books, 2005. 264 pages, grades 4-7 (Pequot)

It is 1782, two years after British soldiers and their Caughnawaga (Mohawk) allies laid bloody siege to a Vermont settlement. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Tucker and his little sister Rhoda, whose mom is a Pequot doctoress and whose dad is a white farmer, are confronted by the hatred and fear exhibited by their new white neighbors, one of whom is eleven-year-old Hiram Coombs, a survivor of the raid. Hiram’s fears, exacerbated by his flashbacks, are further heightened when the Tucker children’s Pequot grandfather shows up to pass along the “old ways,” that are “sliding away, like currents slipping down the river.”  

In alternating narratives, Daniel’s struggle to “find his own path” offers a counterpoint to Hiram’s racism and fear of Indians. As the two boys come to know each other and their families are brought together by an entirely predictable occurrence, their seething enmity gives way to a tentative friendship. 

Despite Ketchum’s discovery that her great-great-great-great-great grandmother was Pequot, she (Ketchum) shows an appalling lack of understanding of Indian ways. No Indian cultural markers here, not one. Grandpa scolds and lectures the children, handles other people’s medicine, grunts, stomps, chants, and complains about his losing his power—“I am an old man now. My skill is fading.”
“He shook the rattle, drummed the earth with his feet, and began to sing. His voice was high as the scream of the red-tailed hawk, wild as coyotes calling to one another on the ridge….The fire lit the pendant on Grandfather’s chest. He shook the rattle harder, then beat his chest with his fists. Swish. Swish. Thrum. Thrum. His voice rose higher, the drumming came faster, the rattle shivered until I thought it would explode…Grandfather’s mournful cries rang in our ears.”
Turns out all this dancing and drumming and rattle-shaking was Grampa’s death song. Pretty energetic for a dying old guy whose skill is fading. 

So Grampa dies, and Mom lops off her hair and rubs ashes on her arms and face—and then has to explain to her horrified husband and children why she’s doing this. Then she sets in to weave a basket. Although it would be an odd thing for a grieving Indian woman to do, it gives Ketchum the opportunity to write—this:
“Mother’s hands began to move and I watched her for a moment. Her fingers snaked a pale splint into the half-formed basket, twining the ash in and out through darker splints so the pattern alternated, dark, then light. Dark. Light. Mother. Father. A dark splint, a light one, woven together. My sister and me, formed from the two—each one of us a sturdy basket, held by the tight mesh of our parents’ weaving. Each neither Pequot, nor English, but both.”
Holy Belabored Metaphor, Batman! And ash splints are not twined, they’re plaited.
Daniel admires the quilling that decorates the bottom of his new deerskin pouch, and muses that "Mom must have spent long hours softening the hide, collecting the quills, then weaving them into this beautiful pattern." Let's get real here. Quills are not collected. (Can you imagine someone walking through the woods, looking for quills? Does the term "needle in a haystack" ring a bell?) There are three ways to get quills: (1) Find a dead porcupine, remove the quills, (2) Find a live porcupine, throw a blanket over it, remove the quills from the blanket, or (3) Find a porcupine, shoot it, remove the quills.
Grampa verbally instructs Daniel on how to make a dugout canoe: “You must find a straight tree with no branches,” he explains. “A chestnut will last forever….First peel off the bark. Then build a fire inside the log and watch it carefully. Burn it, and scoop out the wood. It takes a long time."

It does take a long time, even if you don’t have to look for a tree with no branches and then wait for the tree to fall. Grampa’s directions are pretty straightforward; he just left out a few steps: You have to chop down the tree, drag it to a clearing (preferably near the water), cut off the bark and shape the outside with an axe, then do slow controlled burning (using wet clay as a barrier) to shape the inside, scrape out the coals, repeat burning and scraping the length of the boat, then scrape the inside and outside smooth. This is not the kind of wisdom an Indian grandfather would pass on to his young grandson—by talking. He would more likely show his grandson how something this complex is done, and he would enlist the aid of other male family or community members. And all the while they were working together, grampa would be telling stories about patience, commitment, and passing down history. 

The red-tailed hawk who flies around, alternately bringing and taking messages and leading people to safety is busier than Rin-Tin-Tin. As the great Cherokee philosopher Tom King said, “the beauty of Native philosophy is that not everything means something." 

Finally, Indians don’t have “gleaming black eyes” or “eyes black as coal.” No one does. Where the Great Hawk Flies is a boring book besides. 
—Beverly Slapin

1 comment:

Anne Colvin said...

Dang it! I'm one of those librarians who bought the book on the strength of good reviews. I'm wondering how to avoid this in the future. How do you feel about being an authority, given your blog's title?