“Less than an hour ago, I was Adam, the long-distance runner. Now I’m Adam, the boy who…I can’t even bring myself to say it.”
The young adult novel, Hawk, begins from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Adam, who has just found out he has leukemia. Then the point of view switches to a female “fish-hawk,” better known as an osprey, who is returning to Alberta. It is her first migration back to the place she was born; she is here to find a mate. Throughout the novel, the osprey pair and the teenager will be forever linked through a chance encounter, and more importantly, through their individual struggles to survive.
Alberta Canada is home to what is usually referred to as the “tar sands.” The people who live in the area, many of whom are First Nations, rely on the industry for their livelihood. The money they make at good jobs supports their families and has improved their lives in many ways.
But there is a dark side to this windfall. Many are getting sick. Bile duct cancer, which is quite rare, shows up more in the tar sands area. Although this novel is a work of fiction, Dance has done her research painstakingly. Her conclusions, and the conclusions of a real-life doctor, Dr. John O’Connor, may be controversial, but the reality is that there is usually a price to pay for disturbing the balance of nature.
The story of Adam, though, overshadows all the controversy and argument. He’s just a kid who wants to be a long-distance runner. He’s also a kid with a complicated relationship with his parents, who he calls, Angel and Frank. It’s his way of punishing them for leaving him with his grandfather when he was a baby. Seven years ago, Adam’s parents brought him back to Fort McMurray to live with them, but he still refuses to call them Mom and Dad. They try to explain to him that they left him with his grandfather because they needed to move to Fort McMurray to get jobs. That’s where the money was. They only wanted what was best for him. And when Adam is honest with himself, he actually does miss the time he lived with his grandfather in the wilderness. But he is too angry at everyone to admit anything of the sort.
Dance creates a well-developed portrait of a teenager angry at the world. He’s angry that his parents “abandoned” him, and he uses that word purposely. He’s angry at cancer. When he and his grandfather visit his father’s workplace and discover a fish hawk struggling in a tailings pond, covered with tar, Adam begins to think about things he never considered before. What is the company his father works for doing to the environment? When he and the osprey both struggle to survive, Adam discovers there is a way he can make a difference.
Hawk is a serious book about a timely and important subject. People can argue about the pros and cons of tar sand development, but in the end it is we humans who must find a way to live on this earth. It is our decisions that will determine the health and life expectancy of not only wildlife, like the osprey, but our very own descendants well-being. Adam’s grandfather re-names Adam Hawk and tells the teenager about how canaries were used as a warning system in coal mines. His grandfather says that the birds who suffer and die from oil slicks are like those canaries. They are a warning to us. And children, who get diseases like leukemia, may also be a warning, a kind of fragile “canary.”
Every April, Northland College of Ashland Wisconsin, chooses books in several categories for their Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award (SONWA). Hawk was last years’ choice in the YA category. To see this year’s winners and a complete list of past winners, click on this link: https://www.northland.edu/sustain/soei/sonwa/