Little Hawk is growing up in what is now New England in the 1600s. Since he is eleven, he will soon leave for his trial of survival in the forest, supplied with just his treasured tomahawk. Even though he faces blizzards and wolves all alone, his real trial will begin when he returns. In the meantime, John Wakeley is being raised in his Puritan family nearby. When his mother remarries, John is apprenticed to a cooper in another village for seven years. He would rather be a farmer, but his host family is kind, and he has the opportunity to see the lovely Huldah each week at church. These two boys meet when Squanto brings some settlers to visit Little Hawk’s tribe, and then they meet again years later in a most tragic episode.
Susan Cooper wrote this story when she moved out to a lonely patch of ground on the Massachusetts coast that had originally belonged to the Wampanoag tribe. Her appealingly written novel goes over the well-trodden ground of European settlers bringing sickness and the belief in private property to the peaceful tribes of North America. There is so much to mourn in this passage of our history, even if, like me, the reader is the descendant of later immigrants, rather than the Anglo-Saxons on the Mayflower. However, Susan Cooper seems to have another message, as well. The label “Christian” was continuously applied to the Puritans—aptly enough—and they were shown to be a suspicious and racist bunch. Not all of them, of course, but it seems that those who were not actively evil were at least scared enough to react badly. However, the Pilgrims and other separatists were described more as free-thinking philosophers, when in reality they were more legalistic Christians than the Puritans. Although the separatists were more my spiritual forebears than the Puritans, who remained tied to the Church of England, I felt that Cooper wrote about the two groups with an uneven hand. It is tempting to foist our now-familiar belief in the freedom of religion backward onto people who had never before entertained such a concept. Roger Williams was always portrayed in unreservedly glowing terms. Williams truly was an interesting character, and even though my parents are from Rhode Island, the state that he helped to found, I have always thought of him as a wild man—in a good way, naturally. Once, when he was in Providence Plantation while his wife was still back in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he wrote her a letter that said (very loosely paraphrased), “I believe that there are only two people left on earth who are worthy to partake of the Lord’s Supper: me and you—and sometimes I worry about you.”
As a story, this novel works very well. I was reluctant to read what I thought would be a gritty survival chronicle, and although that is certainly a part of it, this book takes a huge turn about a third of the way through, and my interest never flagged. For boys (nine and up) especially, this would be a great book to show just how hard their ancestors worked and how young they were when they took on adult responsibilities! Both of the protagonists are sympathetic characters and represent the best of their respective cultures. The Newbery Committee will probably look very favorably on this title, perhaps particularly because of my reservations. I would like to pass this on to a friend who is both Christian and Native American, just to get his perspective. Susan Cooper is, of course, the Newbery-winning author of The Dark Is Rising and many other fine books for children.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.