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Posted by Tom, July 15, 2014

The Nosy Crow Reading Group verdict on Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

The Nosy Crow reading group book met last week to discuss the Carnegie-shortlisted Ghost Hawk, by Susan Cooper, and perhaps more than any previous reading group selection, this carried a real weight of expectation: a lot of us in attendance were real Cooper fans, and so the inevitable comparisons to her previous novels (and in particular, to The Dark is Rising, perhaps her best-known work) loomed large over the evening – a circumstance that was, I think, heightened by the facts of the Carnegie-shortlisting, and some of the reviews for this book, including Marcus Sedgwick’s proclamation that this was “probably Susan Cooper’s finest work so far”.

I think it is fair to say that Ghost Hawk suffered somewhat in our estimation as a result. We did speculate on what we thought we might have made of this book had it not come with such expectation, but even so, most of the discussion throughout the evening did meet the book entirely on its own terms, and, unfortunately, it still did not come out particularly favourably.

Warning: spoilers ahead

There was an unusual degree of unanimity amongst our group on where we felt the book’s failures were: of those of us who were disappointed by it, we all felt that Ghost Hawk let itself down after the first third, and the death of Little Hawk. Almost everyone, I think, liked the book’s beginning, and particularly Little Hawk’s coming-of-age ritual in the forest. A number of us were also impressed with the way Cooper handled his return home, and the discovery that his village had been decimated by plague. And I think we all felt that Little Hawk’s sudden death was something of a narrative masterstroke.

From there, however, we largely agreed that things went downhill – and particularly, the novel’s pacing. Criticisms around pacing ranged from the fact that Cooper has a habit of casually dropping huge amounts of information into single paragraphs, to the lack of action, to the abrupt leaps of several years in time, and finally, to a lack of emotional crescendo. And a number of us felt that the ghost of Little Hawk was a culprit for many of these problems: one member of our group objected to the fact that John learns to speak the language of the Native American tribes from Ghost Hawk (on the basis that learning a language from a ghost is cheating and should not be possible), several of us felt that the ghost wasn’t necessary at all, and I think we all felt that the fact that Ghost Hawk does not find any resolution until the novel’s slightly peculiar coda (featuring a suspiciously Susan Cooper-like character) was a bit of a cop out. I thought that the very existence of the ghost undermined the novel’s best moment – Little Hawk’s death – by robbing it of all its power: there ends up being very little significance to his murder when Little Hawk hangs around for the rest of the novel anyway. And I thought that the supposed perspective shift from Hawk to John would have been a more dramatic one if the novel actually had moved to John’s perspective, rather than just being his story, but with Hawk remaining as narrator. This disconnection – between narrator and protagonist – left some us feeling that we had lost our emotional connection with the story, and also, some of our members argued, gave the narrative an increasingly “preachy” tone.

These criticisms left us wondering exactly who this novel is “for”. One of our group – a teacher – said they did not know who they would recommend the book to. Another of us felt that there was too much “loveliness” in the writing (and, by implication, not enough action for a typical boy reader), and a third member conceded that it was very nicely written, but believed that there was not nearly enough narrative momentum for reluctant readers. This left us wondering whether this was really a children’s book at all – was the decision to call it one purely a marketing one? Would it work better as an adult novel?

Reading it from an adult perspective left several of us with a sometimes uncomfortable set of questions around the fact that this was a story about Native American tribes, written by a British-born American writer. Some people felt that the story ran the risk of seeming crass in its depictions of the Native Americans and Settler (comparisons to The Help were made), and none of us were very sure about the authenticity of some of the Native American practices being described.

There were, it should be said, at least two people at our group who whole-heartedly enjoyed the novel (and perhaps more who were afraid to speak up…) One of us argued that the perspective shift did work well, and felt that the strength of the book’s first third carries the reader through the rest of the story. A second member of our group also thought that Cooper handled conflict – and particularly domestic conflict – very well, and they especially liked the book’s ecological themes. And it should be said that, although many of us had criticisms of the book, I think we all found plenty to admire in it (mostly in that first third…).

So, a book that a lot of us really wanted to like… but one that did not, for many of us, live up to expectations. The writing is wonderful at times, and there are moments of breath-taking beauty and drama in the prose and in the story, but by the ending, it had lost a lot of us.

The Nosy Crow Reading Group will be on hold over August as so many people are away, but we’ll be back in September with a new book for discussion – if you’d like to come along, email tom at nosycrow dot com and I’ll add you to our mailing list.

Have you heard about our upcoming children’s publishing conference? Early Bird tickets are available now.