Susan Cooper is a renowned author best known for The Dark is Rising Sequence. Her latest young adult novel, Ghost Hawk, is an deeply compelling look at the dangers of cultural imperialism and the ways that cultures interact. Here, I’ll examine the book from a worldview level. The will be SPOILERS in what follows.
Cultural imperialism occurs when a dominant group asserts its customs or traditions as normative over those of another. For a fantastic book that looks at some of these issues in context of First Nations/Native Americans, see Richard Twiss’s Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys. The white settlers coming into the land are imposing their culture and customs on the Native groups in the area. That this is historical reality is beyond dispute. Cooper presents this, however, in an intriguing way.
John and others are in favor of reform–working with the Native groups and trying to understand them. Others, notably Puritans, believe that all the Natives are without any kind of possible hope. They are simply the heathen, and must be not only converted, but must conform themselves to the European cultural standards. This same imperialism carries into today as missions to Native groups too often wish to banish all Native expressions of spirituality.
The story does not take a happy turn. The efforts to come to mutual understanding largely fail, and Little Hawk is murdered in the process. Little Hawk’s spirit lingers to speak with John for some time (see below).
Despite all the reasons why Little Hawk and John might give up hope, they persist in trusting that hope might be found:
“These people[,” John said, “]they have no charity either for the Indians or for Christians who do not follow their own harsh rules. They talk about the word of the Lord, but they do not listen to it. Shall we destroy each other, in the end?”
…”Change is made by the voice of one person at a time,” [Little Hawk/Ghost Hawk] said…
“But you had no choice [to kill the wolf,” John said to Ghost Hawk. “]We too kill wolves, to keep them from eating the animals that we want to eat. We choose to do it. We have choices all the time, and so often we make the wrong ones.” (291-292, cited below)
There are a number of avenues to explore in this quote. First, it is worth noting that that different Christian voices are presented in the novel. Yes, some present a view in which the Native peoples are merely the heathen–not even worth associating with. Yet others work towards understanding and following God’s word. Second, the concept of choice is quite blatant here: our choices is what can make the difference going forward. When we choose to continue to act as a cultural aggressor, the cycle is perpetuated. What can be done to make a change? Again, different choices–following God’s word.
The story of Ghost Hawk is set during early colonization of what would become known as Massachusetts. The first half of the book follows Little Hawk, a Native American boy who begins his quest to become a man. He encounters the spirit of a hawk/osprey in the wild, but when he returns home he discovers that plague has killed the vast portion of his family and tribe. As the story goes on, he encounters John, the son of a settler. Little Hawk is murdered by one of the settlers as John looks on, and himself becomes a kind of Manitou spirit, communicating with John for some time. Yet the story reaches beyond the initial setting, swirling past over a century of time as the land that was once used by the Massachusetts and other tribes now “belongs” to others. Ultimately, Little Hawk’s spirit is released as a kind of totem of his–his axe–is melded into a tree.
Ghost Hawk asks us to think about cultural imperialism from a different perspective. Susan Cooper invites us to consider the societal and systemic wrongs that have been done to Native groups and to enter into a conversation about how we can work to change that going forward. Moreover, her care to show different perspectives is admirable. Christians should be reflective of past wrongs and seek mutual reconciliation. We need to be aware of how our own expectations are not equivalent with the expectations of the Bible. Reading Ghost Hawk provides a way to start thinking about those issues.
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Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk (New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2013).
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