________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 25. . . .March 4, 2016



Jennifer Dance.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2016.
262 pp., trade pbk., epub & PDF, $12.95 (pbk.), $8.99 (epub), $12.99 (PDF).
ISBN 978-1-4597-3184-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4597-3186-8 (epub), ISBN 978-1-4597-3185-1 (pdf).

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ruth Latta.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Beneath the fish hawk's weary wings, man-machines belch smoke and kick up swirling dust. She blinks and flies through the haze. The scent of pine gives way to a smell that she recognizes from her southern home: the smoky stench that billows from the metal trees that grow in the warm ocean; the reek of the glossy slick that sometimes floats on the balmy water there, making it shimmer with rainbow colours. She has learned that this is not a good place to hunt. Not a good place to be.


"We're stuck between a rock and a hard place," my grandfather says. "We can't live off the land anymore - it's killing us. We can't earn a living trapping because there's no beaver and no muskrat - nothing left to trap! And who buys animal furs these days anyway? So what choice do we have other than to come here to buy food? But look at the prices. Ninety-two dollars for this turkey! It's no bigger than a duck. If it wasn't for Frank's wages, we couldn't afford any of this. Some people have no choice: they go back to eating moose and fish.

I pick up a Snickers. It's only two dollars.

"The cheapest food is the junk!" my grandfather says. "So people get overweight and get diabetes. Then the experts say we're sick because of our lifestyle - and that we get cancer because we use tobacco."


Each of the first 24 chapters of Jennifer Dance's novel, Hawk, begins with vignettes about a male and female fish hawk (ospreys), White Chest and Three Talons, who return from Louisiana and Texas to Northern Alberta each year in the hope of raising chicks to maturity before winter comes. The question of whether or not their babies will survive creates suspense and keeps us reading. The poetic "osprey" segments, from the birds' point of view, are reminiscent of the interchapters of In Our Times, Hemingway's famous work about the devastating, lingering impact of World War I. In Hawk, Dance presents another war, one between the oil patch and the creatures living downstream from it.

     The ospreys' story is one of two entwined plots. The other story is about Adam's courage and maturation as a result of a crisis. At 14, he is a cross-country runner living in Fort McMurray, AB, with his parents and grandfather. A diagnosis of leukemia, and the resulting treatment turn his life upside down. Over half of the novel takes place in hospitals where he receives chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. The memories flooding into his head include the time that he and his grandfather saved a male osprey in a tailings pond.

     Frank, Adam's father, a truck-driver working in the oil development, clashes with Adam's grandfather (Frank's father.) Frank thinks that the overall benefits of the oil industry outweigh its harm to the environment. Grandfather is convinced that toxins from the oil industry's tailing ponds are seeping into the Athabasca River and flowing north to his home town of Fort Chipewyan. Over the years, he has noticed an increase in cancer deaths, deformed fish, dwindling animal populations, and sick animals.

     Until his parents reclaimed him when he was eight, Adam (formerly "Hawk") was raised by his grandfather at "Fort Chip". Angela and Frank, his parents, were young, not ready to settle down, and went south for education and work. Dance shows that this family was already damaged by the residential school system. Grandmother Rosie, now deceased, was taken from her parents to residential school at age four. Having missed out on parental love and nurturing, she didn't know how to give it to her son, Frank. Grandfather acknowledges their problems in parenting, adding that when Hawk was left with him, he felt that he was being given a second chance.

     As the story opens, Adam (Hawk) nurses a grudge against his parents for leaving him during his formative years. Readers see that Angela and Frank are devastated at the fear of losing Adam and sincere in their regret at leaving him behind in his early childhood. Yet, in their focus on their own guilt and need for forgiveness, they seem immature.

     Early in his hospital stay, before the lowest point of his ordeal, Adam isn't sure if he wants his grandfather to visit. "[W]ith his greying hair in a pony tail, his clothes, his lack of expression, even his tone of voice... all these things scream First Nations. I left that image behind when I moved to Fort McMurray." In wondering what caused his leukemia, Adam reflects upon his grandfather's concern about the contamination of the natural world. He resumes the name "Hawk", and, by the end of the novel, he and his grandfather are a team. These likeable co-protagonists, one young and one old, make the novel appeal to both young adults and older readers.

     In hospital, Hawk has several dreams or out-of-body/near-death experiences. In one, he flies alongside White Chest, the male osprey, getting a bird's eye view of the northern Alberta landscape. Others involve closeness with a buffalo and an injured wolf. Dance shows readers how illness reminds us of the animal side of our natures and can lead us to a kinship with other suffering creatures. This experience is part of Hawk's maturation.

     Dance's main characters are multi-faceted and "round", and so are her secondary characters. These "supporting actors" include Hawk's hospital friend, Leon, and two schoolmates, Gemma and Chrissie. They divert Hawk and his readers from his medical adventures which are frightening and painful to read about.

     Dance made so many wise and effective narrative decisions that I can question only one. Using the present tense brings immediacy to the story, and, when you use the present for what's happening now, you have the past tense available for what happened earlier and keep your readers oriented. Dance, however, continues using the present tense for Hawk's flashbacks.

     Dance traveled to the Athabasca oil sands and Fort Chipewyan to research her novel. She thanks Fort Chipewyan residents for "helping her get the story right." Her sources range from nurse practitioners and palliative care nurses to Grade 8-9 students at Athabasca Delta Community School. She acknowledges the inspiration and encouragement of Dr. John O'Connor, a whistle-blower about high cancer death rates in Fort Chip, who successfully fought a campaign to discredit him.

     Hawk is Dance's third novel about indigenous people. Paint, the story of a horse living on the North American Great Plains in the late 1800s, is as compelling as Black Beauty. Red Wolf, about native people and wolves being forced off the land in late 19th century Canada is also excellent and heartrending in its depiction of a residential school. Because Hawk takes place in the here-and-now, in a Canadian setting that has been in the news, it will have a strong impact and possibly stir readers to some type of action. Jennifer Dance is to be congratulated for this courageous, radical novel.

Highly Recommended.

Ottawa’s Ruth Latta has just completed her third young adult novel, now in the hands of a publisher. See http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com

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

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