________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 13 . . . . March 4, 2005


Wittgenstein and the Goshawk: A Fable.

Patrick Watson.
Toronto, ON: McArthur & Company, 2004.
145 pp., cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 1-55278-449-5.

Grades 3 and up / Ages 8 and up.

Review by Lisa Doucet.

***½ /4


Try to see the strange picture. It will be easier if you have been in a house when one of those dogs carries around a kitten or a baby raccoon, in the jaws that could crack a skull. But it is still a strange picture. More than two thousand metres above the treetops, with the lakes way down below glistening like beads on the string of rivers that join them, a tiny speck seen from the ground is really a great-winged hunting bird who is carrying a small friend so gently in those curved talons -and at the same time so securely- that he could probably stop clinging to the middle toe of the goshawk's talons, to keep the rush of air from blowing him away, clinging as if he were on a pine branch in a windstorm. But he clings hard all the same, and tries to scan out the long curve of the world below, but his eyes are watering in the rush of cold early September air, very cold at that altitude, and he can't see very much at all.

"To the north, away from the sun, there is nothing but lakes and forest," Astur tells him. "So I do not think it could be that way. Do you agree?" The budgie agrees.

"Far to the west there is a great water that goes to the horizon and then disappears. It could be the ocean I crossed on that ship with my prince so many years ago, but I do not think so, it is in the wrong direction though it looks just as big." (She was looking at the edge of the spreading Georgian Bay.) "To the east, more lakes and forest. But to the south, beyond another big lake, I can see open fields and - I think - some places where humans live, some buildings, although it is too far to be sure."

Wittgenstein's heart is now beating very rapidly, and not just from the altitude. This sounds very exciting. Just by going up so high she has - just possibly - found something that he has been dreaming of, but could never have seen from the ground. "Could we go in that direction?" he says quietly.

This story begins with Astur the Magnificent, the goshawk of the book's title. This noble creature feels ashamed as she is thwarted in her attempts to secure a meal when her aging reflexes falter just enough to allow her intended prey to escape unharmed. Yet her instincts are still true, and she is certainly capable of surviving in the wild. But as her body begins to show signs of its age, she remembers her life from before. She dreams of her life as Astur of Russia, pride of the Court of St. Petersburg, sometime Sovereign Hawk Mascot of the Imperial Military Academy. She dreams of her life with Prince Vasily Voyeikoff, the boy prince who loved her more than anything. He loved her so much that when the revolution forced him to flee to America, he soon realized that the only fair thing he could do for his beloved falcon was to set her free, saying, "You are my great love, and my first love. Be fierce and be strong."

     Meanwhile there is also Wittgenstein the budgerigar. Wittgenstein was the greatly-adored pet of Henry Harley, a professor of languages who brought up his budgie to speak numerous languages. Wittgenstein was Professor Harley's dearest friend, and, as such, he was duly pampered -pampered but confined to life inside a cage, nonetheless. When Wittgenstein one day finds himself able to sneak out of his cage and out an open window, he finally gets his first taste of freedom. And then he discovers just what it is that he has missed all this time! When he encounters his good friend, the Professor, some weeks later, he uses his well-developed language skills to explain that he does not like cages and that, while freedom of speech may be the first freedom, "the freedom to come and go is the best freedom."

     But the goshawk and the budgie are destined to meet, to meet and become friends, and to work together to find their way home, back to the people who love them.

     This charming modern fable is truly a story for all ages. In fact, adults are perhaps more likely than children to be moved by the gentle insights that this little book affords its readers on life and love and being true to oneself. Yet the story is told simply, in a style that makes the reader feel as though the author is telling the story directly to him or to her. As such, it would make a delightful read-aloud, a lovely story for families with children of different ages to share. Youngsters will enjoy the story's endearing characters, particularly its two winged protagonists who are so delightfully portrayed. Even the human characters, in spite of their more limited roles in the story, are rendered in a way that allows them to be seen as realistically flawed. For example, Prince Vasily's father is a gambler and a fairly useless aristocrat. However, he still gives his son the gift of a lifetime when he gives him Astur and then patiently guides him in his understanding of this magnificent creature. Similarly, though the professor does not immediately recognize the injustice of keeping his animal friend locked in a cage, Wittgenstein is able to make him see. And he is willing to try again to be a better friend. While the human sufferings and travails in the book are subtle and understated (eg. Prince Vasily's flight from his home to more modest circumstances in America, his decision to release Astur, even his dismissal from his job as a doorman), they add to the book’s poignancy and depth, and they will provide opportunities for discussion with younger readers. It is a book that, in its simplicity, calls attention to what is beautiful in the world, and what is truly important.

     Not unlike The Little Prince by St. Exupery, this book will undoubtedly strike a chord with its readers. It is beautifully told and conveys simple but universal truths in a simple but meaningful way. While it may not fly off library shelves, those who do pick it up will be touched by it.

Highly Recommended

Lisa Doucet is a children's bookseller at Woozles in Halifax, NS.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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