Friday, June 14, 2013

Susan Cooper on GHOST HAWK: "The only major liberty I've taken is..."

In the Author's Note of Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk, she says "The only major liberty I've taken is in copying for John Wakeley the whipping inflicted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the Baptist Obadiah Homes in 1651" (p. 327).

I beg to differ.

From my point of view, Cooper took many liberties in the ways that she portrays Native peoples in Ghost Hawk. There are so many, that it will take a great while for me to address the questions I've raised in part one, and typing up/uploading/addressing the questions I've got about part two, three, and four.

In part one, we met John Wakeley (he was five years old) when he and his father were visiting an Indian village to learn how to fish. John met Little Hawk (who was several years older than John) at that village. About five years later, John and his dad are chopping down a tree. It falls on John's dad. Little Hawk is nearby and tries to chop a branch to free John's dad, but is shot by a Pilgrim man who thinks Little Hawk was going to kill John.

In part two, the story is told by Little Hawk, but since he was killed at the end of part one, he tells the story as "a spirit" who can see past and present and understand any language, which is why he can tell us what happens to John in the rest of the book. Another important piece of information: As a spirit, he can choose to be seen and speak. In part one, he revealed himself to John and taught John how to speak the Wampanoag language (below, Cooper says "Pokanoket" but the Mashee Wampanoag use "Wampanoag" at their website).

This scene is in chapter 11 of part two.

John is an adult and visiting Plymouth. Little Hawk (the ghost) tells us that there are lot of people in Plymouth, including several Indians. As John walks, he sees a large group of Pokanokets. A wagon comes down the street, and from the group, John sees a small boy run into the wagon's path, chasing a ball.
"Instinctively he dived forward to grab the child, and caught him just in time" (p. 248).
The child is whimpering, and John speaks to him softly in Pokanoket, "it's all right, don't be afraid, everything's all right." (p. 248).

I've got a lot of questions about that passage, but am focusing on one for this post. The child, according to Cooper, is called Trouble. A few pages later, John visits Yellow Feather/Massasoit's village and home. We learn that Trouble is Massasoit's youngest son, Metacom, or King Phillip.

In Cooper's story, a white person (John) has saved the life of a Native person (Metacom) who will become an important leader (King Philip).

That is a major liberty Cooper has taken in telling this story. She's made John Wakeley into a savior. Where would the Wampanoag's in her story be without him?!

Lest you think that Cooper is relating something factually accurate in that passage, I should also tell you that in her author's note, she says John Wakeley is a fictional character. Did a white person actually save Metacom's life? I'll be looking for that info. If you find it, submit it in a comment or send it to me by email.

In Cooper's story, John is so important that the Wampanoag people gather round to see him. Here's that passage:
Gradually the house filled with people eager for a sight of the white man who had saved Yellow Feather's son" (p. 261).
And later on when John leaves the village, people gather round again. One man holds his son up high overhead so he can see the Speaker. The images those two scenes bring to my mind are gross.

I know a lot of people (looking at you, Richie) love this book, but stop and think about WHY you love this story. Why is it tugging at your heart strings?

If you're a writer, don't create a character who rescues a Native person. No doubt that happened, but the larger picture is not one of benevolence.

If you're a reviewer and you read a book where that happens, point it out.

If you're a librarian or a teacher, don't buy books like this. If it is too late and you've already bought it, discuss what Cooper does. Or, see if you can get your money back. Write a letter to the publisher objecting to the story. If they hear from enough of us, hopefully they won't publish a book like this again.

Creating a character that saves Indian lives obscures the reality of what happened. Let's not hide reality. And let's not whitewash it, either.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very insightful review. Have you considered writing to Susan Cooper herself? I'm quite serious! If she's still active as an author, I imagine she's open to receiving both email or snail mail!

Unknown said...

I totally agree. But I would go a step further in condemning this reoccuring theme in literature. It's as though the authors can't come up with any way to handle a reltationshop between races other than to have the white character save the Native American. I have noticed that such a theme is almost always written poorly, lacking very few if any of the attributes in writing that the reader looks for--sharp plots, rich characters, clever dialogue.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Susan Cooper...she's one of my favourite authors, this is a huge disappointment. :(

Unknown said...

I agree with your views on Ghost Hawk. It made me pretty uncomfortable reading it and picking up on the "white savior" themes.

Then, I flip through Booklist for 7/13 and see that Ghost Hawk has a starred review. Ugh.

Anonymous said...

Same reason I disliked 'The White Giraffe'. Time to get over this...

Nina Lindsay said...

I've finally read this, and have posted some thoughts at Goodreads. It's not just the "savior" theme that's at issue...that theme is almost understated. I find it just humiliating that Little Hawk is set up as a character...then is basically killed off so that he can become a tool in telling John's story.

Anonymous said...

I just wondered if you saw that Anita Silvey has chosen to honor Ghost Hawk as part of her celebration of Children's Book Authors and Illustrators week?

Anonymous said...

I see your point in this. Whites are so often portrayed as saviors to other races. This is just not right. A lot of the time, it is the other way around. We cannot judge the character or actions of someone based on their race. Everyone is different, and not everyone chooses to follow the laws or rules placed down by their culture. We must try to stop this. It is unjust and racist.