CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 36. . . .May 17, 2013
Living with the Hawk.
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown Press, 2013.
196 pp., trade pbk., EPUB, $15.95 (pbk).
ISBN 978-1-927068-39-7 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-927068-59-4 (EPUB).
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.
My brother asked me what I was doing, trying to cream him like that at practice, the snap barely in his hands when I hit him.
”You don’t like getting hit,” I said, “maybe they’ll take you on the chess team.”
“Up yours. You were a mile offside. Besides, you hit like a cream puff.”
We let it go at that. He didn’t ask again why I wanted to hit him, and I wasn’t going to tell him. If he had half a brain, he probably knew why. Neither of us spoke of what happened that Saturday night on Fosters back lawn. In fact, we seldom talked anymore – excerpt, of course, at meals. We both thought it politic to strive for normal conversation in the presence of our parents, but at supper that night, I wanted to talk.
As soon as our father had asked the blessing, I said, “Guess what? There’s a native girl at school.”
My mother was passing around the bowl of potatoes. She paused, a little gob of potato stuck on her thumb. She set the bowl down in front of me, wiped off the potato with her serviette. “Only one?” she asked. “I understand in Regina some of the inner city schools have more natives than whites.”
“She’s the only one I’ve seen. Don’t know who she is, but I saw her in the hall again today at noon. She’s...kind of pretty.”
“Anna Big Sky,” said my brother.
Living with the Hawk is a richly textured novel involving two brothers and the issue of the duality of forgiveness, forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. The book’s main text is bookended by a “Prologue” and an “Epilogue”, with the former informing readers that the narrator is looking back at his grade nine year and his decision to try out for the football team and “how that [decision] would change everything.” The narrator, Blair Russell, lives with his older brother Blake and their parents, Paul and Barbara in the (fictional) 30,000 person community of Palliser, SK, which lies along the Trans-Canada Highway. As Blair explains, Palliser is “too short of industries and too near Regina to ever hope to grow.” The boys’ father is the Anglican priest at St. David’s Church in Palliser, a fact that makes the boys PKs or Preacher’s Kids. This label carries with it certain expectations that the brothers will exhibit “better” behaviour than the community norm, expectations that come from both within the family as well as the larger community. In addition to being “good”, the boys’ father also wants his sons to play sports, with his motivation, in part, being that he feels that other men see him, as a man of the cloth, being less masculine than other males.
Encouraged by Blake to tryout for the football team, Blair is the only grade nine student who makes the squad, but his joy is quickly dampened by one of the grade 12 players who sarcastically tells him, “Rookie, you are such a lucksack. You made the team because your brother’s the quarterback. And that’s the only reason.” While Blake does play the focal position on the team and is a B.M.O.C. at their high school, he is not the team’s best player. That role belongs to Jordan Phelps, a receiver who, the previous year, was the first grade 11 player in the school’s history to be given the George Reid Most Valuable Player Award. Jordan offers two faces to the world. To adults, he’s the perfect polite adolescent, but, in the school setting, he’s a master manipulator with a very nasty mean streak. When Jordan leads a hazing involving Blair, he says, “Rookies and sluts,... they need to be knocked around some before they’re worth a shit.”
After the team’s fifth game and fifth win, Jordan announces that it’s party time that night at the parent-absent home of a teammate. “This is a team event. We win together and we celebrate together. This means everybody shows up.” Though Blair has been on the football field for only a few meaningless plays when games’ winning outcomes were obvious, he understands that Jordan’s “edict” includes him. And so Blair must deal with the balancing act of trying to be one of the guys while still living up to the moral standards expected of a PK. Blair does go to the party, albeit late. However, during the evening, he witnesses an event involving Blake which serves as a catalyst to all of the happenings which follow. Stepping into the darkened back yard, Blair sees a line of a half dozen drunken guys, led by Jordan Phelps, urinating on a drunk, passed out girl. As the guys return to the house, an unseen Blair recognizes that “the last one inside was my brother.”
With the assistance of an older car-owning teammate, Blair takes the urine-drenched girl, Amber Saunders, home, only to be punched in the face by her father who thinks Blair is the person responsible for her inebriated condition. When a drunken Blake and a bruised Blair arrive home, it is Blair who is punished more severely for being in a fight. His father explains, “We don’t condone drunkenness in this family; we just happen to think that fighting’s worse.”Blair cannot give any details of the fight’s cause for doing so would expose Blake’s involvement in degrading Amber. Though Blair does later tell Blake that he had seen what Blake did, Blake makes him promise that he will never tell their parents.
The next week at school, Blair observes Jordan sexually harassing Amber in the halls and a native girl intervening by calling Jordan an “asshole” and then kneeing him in the groin. Jordan retaliates by calling her a “damned wagon-burner”, and when he sees Blair, he adds. “Bitch, she’s just asking for a good banging.” From Blake, Blair learns her name, Anna Big Sky, and that she’s in grade 12 and is the only First Nations student in their school of 600. Impressed by her courage in standing up to Jordan, Blair gets a grade nine crush on the “older woman” and experiences jealousy when he learns that Blake has actually taken her out once. Blair’s mooning over Anna does not go unnoticed by his teammates, and Jordan leads out in the locker room with derogatory references to “red meat,” remarks which are picked up and expanded upon by his toadies.
In mid-October, following a second snowfall, the beaten, frozen body of a girl is discovered outside of town in an area adjacent to a spot where local teens go to drink and make out. The body is identified as being Anna, and when Blair visits the site of her death, he observes a large patch of urine-soaked snow. Recalling the earlier incident involving Amber, and linking it to Anna’s hallway intervention and Jordan’s comments about Anna’s “just asking for a good banging”, Blair is certain that Jordan was involved in Anna’s death. However, the amount of urine present indicates to Blair that more than one person had to have been involved, and that, possibly, Blake, was among them.
Blair now faces a moral dilemma. He knows he must do the right thing by informing the authorities of his suspicions, but can he include his brother’s name in his list of suspects? Throughout the novel, Currie has frequently dropped in Blair’s childhood recollections of how his “big” brother had always been there for him when he needed help, and these warm memories now conflict with the seemingly changed brother Blair sees before him. When Blair shares with Blake his intention to go to the police, Blake asks him not to, saying he will handle it. However, Blair does not listen, and he anonymously provides Crime Stoppers with Jordan’s name and that of two other members of the football team while omitting his brother’s name. Much to Blair’s surprise, Blake is also arrested as, when the other three are taken into custody, they not only claim that Blake was involved, but they assert that he took the lead in the events that led to Anna Big Sky’s death.
In the same way that Anna’s death comes as a sudden, unexpected surprise to readers, Currie offers his readers yet one more unanticipated happening before the main text concludes. The book’s title is, perhaps, somewhat obtuse, but, if you live in a rural area on the Prairies, you will recognize the image being presented. Prairie dwelling rodents and other prey creatures live with the hawk which, unexpectedly swoops down, and, in the most severe scenario, ends life. We all live with metaphorical hawks whose talons can suddenly and forever tear apart our lives.
In Living with the Hawk, the parents and other adults are much more fully formed than is the case in most novels for adolescents. The brothers’ parents don’t just have walk-on parts, but they, and their values, are integral to the story. The on-field sports action and the locker room hijinks and banter ring true, as does the racism and the win-at-all-costs coaching mentality that can be found in some schools.
Currie, who taught English for 30 years at Central Collegiate in Moose Jaw, SK, uses an epilogue to bring some degree of closure to Blair’s story. After a year of pumping gas at the Palliser Co-Op following high school, Blair is now taking commerce at the University of Saskatchewan where he has discovered the woman “I thought someday I might want to marry.” On a weekend trip to Regina to see the Saskatchewan Roughriders play football, Blair hears a voice he recognizes from the past, and thoughts of revenge rush to his mind. Once a PK, perhaps always a PK, and so Blair elects a different route to his future by making peace with the past and himself. Blair’s story is finished and not finished for, as is the case with all of us, the hawk still hovers.
A must-buy by school and public libraries.
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor and a TK (Teacher’s Kid), lives in Winnipeg, MB, near a field pockmarked by prairie dog mounds.
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