Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Ghost Hawk

Ghost HawkSusan Cooper is back, and about time too. She was the first woman to edit the Oxford University magazine Cherwell, and wrote for the Sunday Times under Ian Fleming. Her first novel, Mandrake (1964) was a good British dystopia novel, now sadly dated but nonetheless good reading for all of that. Dawn of Fear (1970) is a classic children’s war story, and used to be taught in British schools. Her outstanding series of Arthurian quest novels The Dark Is Rising (1965-77) has won multiple prizes, and a film based on its story was produced as The Seeker in 2007.  Then there was a gap, until Seaward burst upon a waiting world in 1983, and it was terrific: futuristic, fantastical, closely linked to Alice Through the Looking-Glass, and a marvellous parable about refugees and adolescence. Then there was another gap, until five children’s novels which I unaccountably missed out on reading because my own children didn’t much like her. And now we have Ghost Hawk, which continues her old theme of strangers in a strange land, and her more recent exploration of the history of the USA, and I am unaccountably disappointed.

I don’t think it’s because I am wallowing in my nostalgia for The Dark is Rising. I reread Seaward (Cooper’s best novel, in my view) after reading Ghost Hawk, because the intended reader is the same: the intelligent adolescent and older. Where Seaward is sensitive, spare, timeless, deceptively simple and packed with emotional integrity, Ghost Hawk is visibly careful, planned, awkwardly structured, and its characters rarely leave the page. It also preaches ecology and universal tolerance in the rather obvious way that reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle, and that is simply irritating.

But Ghost Hawk has so much going for it. I am bewildered as to why Cooper didn’t get her usual magic flowing. The big problem for me is the way the novel is structured. (Although the next lines may seem like a spoiler, all the publicity for the book does mention the crucial point.) The story has a great start. Little Hawk is a Wampanoag, living on the eastern seaboard of North America in the early 17th century, and he grows to adulthood after a harrowing and thrilling three-month  winter survival ordeal that is his personal journey to manhood.  He survives partly because of an iron knife that his father had received in trade from white settlers on the coast. Later, he meets some of these white men, and shows them, and one small white boy, John, how to catch fish. Several years after that, Little Hawk is murdered, while trying to help John’s father who is trapped under a falling tree, and the manner of his death means that he is bound to John’s fortunes.

This is perfectly fine, but what totally destroyed my suspension of disbelief was that Little Hawk continues the narration of the story, which has now become John’s story, as a ghost. So the story begins in first-person narration, switches to omniscient third-person narration as spoken by Ghost Hawk, who occasionally intrudes himself into the narrative of John Wakely, and (most annoying of all), skips a few more centuries to be concluded in the 20th century. I hated this, because it doesn’t work, and felt like a sermon. Any intelligent reader – child or adult or in between – will be asking, ‘what? How can that happen?’, and that is death to a story that rests on an acceptance of fantasy elements. The historical novel is a special kind of fantasy fiction, that we accept if it feels real within itself, it follows its own rules of an approximation of realism. But as soon as you mess around with its internal consistency, you expose the whole delicate edifice as a tissue of lies designed for our entertainment. This ghost narration is the only supernatural or fantasy element in Ghost Hawk, so it intrudes. In a recent prizewinning novel whose narrator also dies and continues narrating as a ghost from partway through, we accepted the talking ghost because the story also has roles for mythical creatures and the gods: ghosts are part of that world. But to intrude a ghost into what is otherwise a realist narrative about historical figures who we are intended to believe in as real does not work.

This is disappointing because so much in Ghost Hawk is spell-binding. When Cooper talks about nature, she is completely believable. When she describes how the tribes live, we don’t question anything because these parts of the story are completely plausible, and written so beautifully. Somehow, she is not so comfortable writing about the English settlers. Sometimes these parts read as if she’d been rereading The Scarlet Letter, or witchcraft trial evidence, so the story is carefully written, but lacks joy, nuance and depth. Whereas Little Hawk’s life, when he had one, is deep and rich.

Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk (London: The Bodley Head, 2013) 978-1-782-30000-7 £12.99 hardback

Kate has podcasted enthusiastically about Susan Cooper on

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

5 comments on “Ghost Hawk

  1. Rhoda Baxter
    October 15, 2013

    I absolutely loved The Dark is Rising series when I was younger. It’s a shame Ghost Hawk didn’t have the same sort of magic as the other books. I missed Seaward, so I think I’ll go check that out. Thanks for the review (and the heads up about the Seaward).

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings
    October 15, 2013

    I loved Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence – found them spellbinding when I read them in my 20s – but I’ve never explored further. I very much like the sound of Seaward, but I don’t think I’ll be trying this one…

  3. Clarissa Aykroyd
    October 15, 2013

    I’d still like to read this, but it is hard for me to believe that Susan Cooper will ever equal the Dark is Rising books. She has written other good books – I remember that Seaward was interesting, Victory and King of Shadows were pretty good, etc – but the Dark is Rising books are just exceptional; beautiful interweaving of real places (some of which I’ve visited) and mythology, lush, vivid and powerful writing, memorable characters. It would frankly have amazed me if she’d ever equalled them. I adored those books as a child and still adore them, in somewhat different ways. I’ve recommended them to adult friends who hadn’t read them as children but still found them remarkable. The quality of the writing is just outstanding and I don’t think that many writers can sustain that quality through their whole career.

  4. Intriguing, and this does make me want to read Seaward, and maybe even Ghost Hawk itself. I’ve only ever read her The Dark Is Rising sequence too, and I have to say I think those books are uneven – The Dark is Rising itself (the second book) is truly amazing – wonderful atmosphere and sense of place, very evocative and absolutely terrifying at times, plus wonderful characters. But the others are patchier, and the last one Silver on the Tree, really didn’t work for me at all – I was bored by the end. (I don’t think Cooper managed to solve the perennial problem of how you can satisfyingly wrap up an epic Good vs Evil conflict which is meant to symbolise the conflicts of human life.)

  5. Kate
    October 15, 2013

    Oh please do, all of you, read Seaward! I agree about the slight patchiness of TDiR series: if I’d read Under Sea Over Stone first I would never have continued, but The Dark is Rising, and The Grey King are outstanding novels, in so many ways. However, if you like novels about early white settlers in the USA, and Native American tribal life, Ghost Hawk does have a lot going for it.

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This entry was posted on October 15, 2013 by in Entries by Kate, Fiction: 21st Century, Fiction: children's, Fiction: historical and tagged , .



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