Wednesday, April 4, 2012

#Review: Incident at Hawk's Hill

Author: Allan W Eckert
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 1995

Allan W Eckert plunges readers into times gone by in the Canadian prairie with this story about a young boy, Ben MacDonald, whose uncanny ability to empathise with animals results in him forming a strong bond with a female badger. Smaller than most children his age, Ben also has issues communicating with other people. The fact that his parents live on an isolated farm doesn’t help either, and the child spends many hours on his own, following animals around and mimicking them—often with uncanny precision.

William MacDonald doesn’t understand his son, and this leads to most of the tension in the family. Considering the time period in which the novel is set, these concerns of William are quite valid in a society where being “different” can cause problems. In addition, the MacDonald family have a new neighbour, George Burton, a ne’er-do-well trapper who’s decided to try out farming instead. Ben and Burton are guaranteed to come into conflict.

And problems soon arise when Burton gains permission to set traps on the MacDonald farm. At this time, Ben has his first encounter with a large badger sow, but it is her mate who is caught and killed by Burton, who then sets another trap when he realises there is another badger in the vicinity.

On one level this is a story about a boy who survives in the wild for two months thanks to his unique bond with a badger. On another, it is also an examination of empathy. It’s Ben’s sensitivity which ironically creates barriers between him and his family, and it’s only once his family look beyond their comfort zones that they begin to understand their troubled brother and son.

Burton remains the outsider. I did feel that Eckert’s treatment of his personality to be a bit stereotypical: the dirty, callous brute who traps and kills beautiful wild animals in a most cruel fashion. While it is true that nature is red in tooth and claw, I felt just ever so slightly manipulated into hating Burton, as though the author had an agenda. And, while I don’t agree with trapping animals for their fur, I nonetheless didn’t really like having the author play to emotions to that degree.

Nevertheless, there’s a reason why Eckert is considered a master storyteller. He is a keen observer of man and nature, and his gift for narrative description is second to none. If you’re looking for a book to gift a young reader (or a reader who’s young at heart) who’s interested in the natural world, Incident at Hawk’s Hill will be spellbinding.

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