Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Where would we be without whites who like Indians? Or, a critical look at Susan Cooper's GHOST HAWK

As expected, Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk is a contender for the Newbery Medal (2:26 PM Note: I do not have inside knowledge of the Newbery Committee's deliberations. My post is about Ghost Hawk being discussed as a contender in the mock Newbery discussion at SLJ's Heavy Medal blog).  Ghost Hawk is the topic today (October 15, 2013) at SLJ's Heavy Medal blog. The author of the post, Jonathan Hunt, thinks that the plot twist at the end of part one is "the best of the year."

The plot twist he refers to? The character, Little Hawk, is killed by a Pilgrim, but that's not the end of him. He goes from being a living person to a ghost that narrates the rest of the story, which focuses on John Wakely, a colonist who grows up and saves the life of a Native boy named Trouble. That Native boy grows up to be Metacom/King Philip. Yep--a leader of the Wampanoag, according to Cooper's story, only gets to be that leader because a white person saves him when he was a child.

Throughout part two and three, Little Hawk can reveal himself to John at a certain time and place on an island. He does so several times during the story. That's because, when Little Hawk was killed, he was unable to rest or go home because John has a stone blade that belonged to Little Hawk's ancestors.  

By the end of the story (part four in the book), we're in the present day. A woman lives on the island. With a helper, she works the land. That helper finds Little Hawk's tomahawk and gives it to the woman. The next day, she's holding the tomahawk in her hand and Little Hawk reveals himself to her (page 316):
"She sees a bare-chested American Indian, in deerskin pants and moccasins, his hair greased up into a scalp lock--but the body has no substance, and through it the trees are still faintly visible."
She is startled but they begin to talk with each other. They have what I find to be a troubling conversation about the land itself and land ownership, and she learns that he is kept from resting because of the tomahawk blade she now has in her hands. She realizes that she can free him by burying it. The tomahawk, he tells her, has been buried a long time. Strains of "bury the hatchet"--don't you think?! So, she plants a hickory tree and buries the blade with it. Then, we read (p. 320):
Time breaks open around me, and all at once there is more light than a hundred suns, more light than I have ever seen.
I am gone to my long home at last, set free, flying high, high beyond the world. High, high, into mystery.
With those passages, Cooper is imagining what a Wampanoag person experiences when they die. It is a bit ironic, I think, that it is a person named Cooper doing that imagining, because another person named Cooper did a whole lot of imagining when he wrote his stories about Indians... Course, I'm thinking of James Fenimore Cooper. Remember that guy? He wrote Last of the Mohicans. 

Key points in Susan Cooper's story? White person saves Metacom. White person frees Little Hawk. In his discussion of the book, Jonathan says that Cooper's story, written from Little Hawk's perspective,
"engenders empathy for the disappearing indigenous people and their culture."
Perhaps it does, but how what does that empathy mean? What does IT engender? Below is the comment I submitted to Jonathan's post. As of this moment (9:26 AM, Central Time), it is in 'moderation mode' but I expect it to appear shortly. I encourage you to follow and participate in the discussion that will take place. Here's a link to the page:

Jonathan Hunt's post about Ghost Hawk

And, my comment to Jonathan's post (awaiting approval from Jonathan or whomever moderates comments for him):

Hi Jonathan,
As some people know, I blogged Part One of Cooper’s (http://goo.gl/lhf9iX) story in early June. The technique I used in that post is one that is very popular with my readers. They want to know about the process I go through as I read and analyze a book about American Indians. Some people feel strongly that doing that is unfair, particularly because I haven’t yet provided answers to concerns and questions I raised in that post. I have similar notes for posts about Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four and intended to write them up and post them, too, inserting answers to my questions/concerns as I conducted research necessary to answer my questions.
When I read the Author’s Note, however, I decided to write and post my overall thoughts on the book (http://goo.gl/vwimyd) because I don’t think the answers to my questions/concerns will change my primary concerns with the book. In a nutshell: we have an author using seventeenth century sources to imagine the life of a Native character, and then (presumably) using those same sources to imagine the after-life of that Native character. I see no evidence that she consulted any sources that counter the bias and misinformation in the ways that American Indians are portrayed in those seventeenth century sources. In the Author’s Note, she sends us to two websites, but the first one is sketchy and further adds to my concerns that she did not read any of the critical writing by scholars who counter bias and misinformation in materials about American Indians. As such, she’s doing a whole lot of imagining. She imagines the life of living/breathing Native people, and then she takes a huge leap and imagines how that tribe has laid out its spirituality. Given its glowing reviews, what she does works for most people, and that’s troubling. Shouldn’t we be past that kind of imagining that romanticizes American Indians?
A second concern is that in her story, her fictional main character, John Wakely, saves the life of Metacom/King Philip. According to the entry in Hoxie’s ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, he “personified native resistance to colonial power in southern New England in the seventeenth century” (p. 373). John is so adored by the Indians, that they hold their children up high so they can get a glimpse of him. In a way, this is the John Smith/Pocahontas story all over again. But again–shouldn’t we be past themes in which whites save the day?
Obviously, I disagree that the writing is skillful and the themes distinguished. Cooper’s story, as Jonathan says, “engenders empathy for the disappearing indigenous people and their culture.” His use of “disappearing indigenous people” is telling, I think, because that is exactly what I’m talking about. As a society, most Americans want to love a certain kind of indigenous person and story about indigenous people. It is a superficial love for something imagined. Unfortunately, the kind they love is the kind that was mistreated but then disappeared.
Where’s the love of modern day American Indians critical of that superficial love?
It was/is a bit unnerving to read the comments to Jonathan’s earlier post (“October Nominations”), in which commenters discourage others from reading what I said in my post about Ghost Hawk.
I’m not hoping for people to love what I or any Indigenous people say. What we all need is a different perspective of Native/White relationships, past and present. What we need is a citizenry that can see and reject stereotypes of who American Indians are, and a citizenry that wants accurate, not romantic, stories about who we are. Heralding books like GHOST HAWK or SALT will keep us stuck in that same old place of honoring Indians, and that kind of honoring is superficial and not helpful to anyone.


Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain said...

I have read all of your Ghost Hawk posts, Jonathan Hunt's post and all of its comments. I stand with you and will not buy the book (I might read it if I find it in a library). It seems to me that most of the commenters miss your point entirely. Perhaps they have not had the experience of defusing a generation of misperception and stereotype caused by an applauded book like Sign of the Beaver or of having serious conversations with impassioned tribal leaders about the on-going negative effects of these literate fictions. Perhaps they just don't want to recognize you as an educated voice - one learned in a way and to a degree that a non-Native can not be (I learned that lesson the hard way). Too bad - your pieces are models of close reading, especially given your willingness to ask questions of your own, research, reach out, and revise. It's not at all about the Newbery, but certainly that award would rocket this book into schools and libraries. Keep up the pressure - Yours is an important voice!

Anonymous said...

Do you ever read the whole book through first and then go back to take it apart? Or is it all based on your first reading?