This novel from an author in her late seventies is a superb achievement. Its canvas is the decline and near eradication of America’s indigenous tribes after the arrival of British settlers on the East Coast. The first half tells the story of Little Hawk, a boy from the Ousmaquin tribe, who is tragically killed by a trigger-happy settler while attempting to perform an act of mercy. This crime is witnessed by John Wakeley, a British boy who henceforth works heroically towards a better understanding between some increasingly warring factions. He is supported in this by the spirit of Little Hawk, only visible at a certain time and place.
So much for a highly effective plot. But what gives this story true distinction is the extraordinarily detailed local knowledge the author brings to it. The description of the various ways by which Little Hawk manages to survive alone in the wild for three months as part of his imitation into manhood is unforgettable. Life with the Puritans is also never dull, with John gradually learning how to become a cooper, also a fascinating process. It could be argued that the native Americans come over as almost saintly in their day to day behavior, forever thanking animals after hunting them and apologising profusely to trees after cutting them down. It therefore comes as a shock when towards the end other indigenous groups actually join in with the Puritans, not shown as a particularly nice lot, when it comes to slaughtering rival tribes. That aside, readers in search of a stirring story, beautifully written and extensively researched, are still in for a treat from an author writing as well as she has ever done before.