Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

There it still was, beside the rocks, still the proper shape: the small bitternut hickory tree with its slender stems growing in a V.

He gave the tree a respectful greeting, and explained what he was about to do.

The woven birch-bark pouch was heavy around his neck. He took out the stone blade, a long notched rectangle of flint with on edge chipped to a fine sharpness. This blade had belonged to the tomahawk used by his father and his grandfather, until its handle broke; nobody knew where it had come from or when it was made. It was very precious to him.

In the winter of his eleventh year, Little Hawk goes deep into the forest, where he must endure a three-month test of solitude and survival which will turn him into a man.

But outside the woods, the world is changing. English settlers are landing on the shores of the New World, and tensions between native tribes and the invaders are rising.

Little Hawk’s fate becomes irreversibly entwined with that of John, a young English boy who dares to question intolerance. He is witness to a secret murder - will he now be witness to bloodshed between nations?

First off, don’t read this book if you expect it to be in the style of Susan Cooper’s famous series ‘The Dark is Rising’ - it’s not. True, it too is a large story with good and evil in it, it has a deep understanding of place and it’s beautifully written - but it’s quite distinctly different.

It’s a book of two main parts, and two main characters: Little Hawk and John. It traces their shared story over a lifetime - and beyond. There’s a glimpse of the wider 17th century world – and a final touching coda which brings the story into the present day.

The opening - with Little Hawk growing into a man in the forest - is absolutely gripping - and very bold. If you find Ray Mears’ tales of the First Nations fascinating, you will love this. It’s not for the squeamish - there’s a truthfulness I admire greatly.

I won’t give spoilers - but there is one breath-taking event that has stayed with me and will do so for years. John’s story - as one the first white settlers - may not be quite so different to many readers’ lives. It is still intriguing and beautifully depicted. This book certainly broadened my understanding of the period and its tensions.

Indeed, in some ways it’s a book that rewards adult reading just as much as a child’s. I would recommend it for fluent readers of any age who love to be immersed in a no-holds-barred historical setting. If they also want to consider right and wrong, truth and tolerance, then so much the better.

As C. S. Lewis said: "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest."

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper
Published by The Bodley Head
Hardback due out in August 2014
330 pages in review copy

10/10 For fluent readers of any age who love to be immersed in a no-holds-barred historical setting.

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