Ghost Hawk begins with the father of the story's narrator journeying to a secluded marsh island in pre-colonial New England to wedge the loose blade of a tomahawk into the cleft of a Bitternut Hickory sapling. He knows that when he returns 11 years later, the tree will have grown into a strong handle for the tomahawk; a gift for his new son. 11 winters later, that son, Little Hawk, takes that tomahawk into the forest for his three-month winter ordeal of meditation, solitude and survival that to his community represents the transition from boyhood. Some individuals do not return from the forest. Those that do return as men.
However, Little Hawk's time on Earth coincides with the arrival to the New World of white settlers from Europe, bringing with them their disease, their greed and their charters and laws. Little Hawk's ancient way of life, and the way of life of all the other tribal American Indian villages is under threat from these settlers who mistrust and persecute the natives and alter the country's landscape beyond recognition.
Little Hawk tries to help out a white settler during a terrible logging accident and as a result, his fate is tied forever to that of young John Wakely, a boy he'd met some summers ago. Together, Little Hawk and John learn about each other's cultures, fears and behaviours in an attempt to build bridges between their communities, but as the years roll on, intolerance, prejudice and fear play bigger and more important roles in the narrative of the New World.
I really enjoyed the setting of this book- I love the idea of natural, wild America, untouched by European tools and boots. Cooper writes beautifully of the wilderness, the mood of the natural world and the seasons, and the Native characters' love for and respect of their world comes across brilliantly. I just wanted to savour that environment, knowing now that it no longer exists. I really warmed towards Little Hawk during his coming of age trip, his resilience and intelligence shone through and the reader gets a good insight into the conscience and upbringing of the character, even though one book will never be enough to understand Native American culture or life. I liked John too; we follow him through his seven year apprenticeship to a Master Cooper, his own community's idea of the journey to manhood. John grows to be a morally resolute man, outspoken in the face of prejudice and inherently peaceful. He sees the hypocrisy and the extremism of the religious leaders around him and chooses to distance himself, to find somewhere where he can live the life he wants.
The book feels well researched, at least there are a lot of names, dates and events that match up with historical accounts. The author did a good job of creating the feeling of the bustling and expanding "civilisations" of Providence and Boston as they grow rapidly from small settlements to towns and the behaviour of the people in them felt believable and realistic. I think it was a nice touch that the first white American generation, those who've never seen Europe, were so different to their parents' and grandparents' generations that sailed the Atlantic for a new life. And also that the Native tribal leaders that have been born after the white settlers' arrival vary greatly from their predecessors. More suspicious, more affronted and faster to retaliate in both cases. I think the behaviour of colonials will baffle me forever.
Towards the latter part of the book I felt it lost its way a little as the narrative shoots forward in time and the lives that have been so skillfully entwined throughout the book begin to diverge slightly. I really liked Little Hawk as a narrator, though he fades away towards the end as the world becomes so divorced from the one he knows. I was a bit disappointed that John Wakeley, now a grown man, couldn't merely be a benevolent supporter of native Americans, he had to be the saviour of them too. That post-rescue gratitude had no need to exist really- it felt a little bit of a betrayal of the naturally trusting nature of John's character.
In summary though, this is a well written story of friendship and bravery that's eye opening and skillfully crafted. Though there are flaws with some of the themes and events, it's still a wonderfully written book that questions the nature of certainty and righteousness- it makes the reader wonder if life might be simpler if the human race was a little more flexible and a little less certain.