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incident at hawk's hill

26 december 2013

As boys-raised-by-badgers novels go, Incident at Hawk's Hill is … well, it's got to be the only one. There can't be any other novels about boys raised by badgers. You can check this.

Young Ben MacDonald is only briefly raised by a badger. But compared to the usual apes or wolves, it's not an easy fostering. The mother badger, having lost her own cubs, tries to get the six-year-old (who has wandered off his family's Manitoba farm in 1870) to suckle at her teats. He can't bring himself to do that, but he's happy to gorge on raw prairie chicken and pinky mice. He learns the ways of the badger: how to enlarge a den with your claws, how to sneak up on snakes and voles. Never happy among people, young Ben spends the third quarter of the novel getting in touch with his true meline nature.

As bizarre an invitation to parody as this scenario may seem, Incident at Hawk's Hill is a provocative, suspenseful, and expertly-written novel. It's strongly rhetorical, despite its matter-of-fact narrative (author Allan W. Eckert never "breaks the frame" of the story to moralize in his own voice). Incident at Hawk's Hill raises questions about our identity with animals, the proper balance between human and animal needs, stewardship of the environment, family dynamics of age and sex, and constructions of the Other. Heady stuff for a children's book, even after 40+ years.

Eckert's novel is graphic, though unsensational, about violence, excrement, carnivorous activity, and badger sexuality. He doesn't wax lyrical about any of this stuff; in fact, at times it's as if pagelong stretches of Incident at Hawk's Hill have been – let's say faithfully paraphrased – from textbooks of badger ethology. Eckert is careful not to ascribe too much consciousness to his badger. It's clear that we don't know how badgers think, so internal monologues are inappropriate, and Eckert avoids them. But it's also clear that badgers make plans and execute complicated algorithms. We don't know how – Eckert invokes "instinct," which is as good a catchall explanation as any – but we apparently know what badgers do, and it's a purposeful lifestyle.

Badgers are also badass creatures. They are no match for humans with firearms (like the novel's loathsome villain, trapper George Burton). But few other predators bother them (according to Eckert), and they're the scourge of Prairie Dog Town. One of the most exciting (if far-fetched) scenes in Incident at Hawk's Hill sees Ben and his badger attack Burton's big, mean hunting dog with their bare teeth and claws. You don't want to be the dog in that matchup.

Badgers are so badass that even the relatively good people in the book live in uneasy relation to them. Ben's father William, quite a good if somewhat role-bound frontier patriarch, has no love for badgers, and is happy at first to see Burton interfering with them. The badgers' burrows undermine the MacDonald farm, posing dangers to horses; humans and badgers don't live in easy harmony. Except for Ben and his surrogate mother, of course. The novel's denouement shows the human and badger families merging with Ben as intermediary.

One of Eckert's stronger themes is that people and badgers (and so by extension all "wild" animals) are more alike than their incompatibilities would suggest. He shows elaborate scenes of the badger hunting its prey. He shows equally elaborate scenes of humans hunting theirs: of Burton (repellent but undeniably skillful) laying out traps for badgers), even of William MacDonald skinning a badger. Human expertise differs only technologically from animal expertise. It's not clear that ours is "higher."

Eckert, Allan W. Incident at Hawk's Hill. 1971. New York: Little, Brown [Hachette], c2006.