William Wallis’s debut novel, pays homage to that most mystifying and
seductive of preludes, that archetypal cocoon—childhood. Survive those years
without too much damage in the nest and one may, perhaps, wish to
fly—soar—into the rest of life.
Wallis chronicles the growing pains of one Will Falke, a seven-year-old who
awakens to the world mostly in Monticello, Arkansas, in the early 1950s. That
state, of course, is encircled by a half dozen other southern states, just as
the characters in this narrative entwine one another.
The American South. Our Southern writers speak keenly of one of the
region’s chief preoccupations—survival. One of them, receiving the Nobel Prize
at the close of that pasteboard-mask decade, predicted that humankind would
not just endure but prevail.
Wallis’s protagonist is a child of the Fifties. Both cursed and blessed,
both enduring and prevailing. Will endures: he is cursed
by the loss of an eye,
by the stinging pain of a
ferocious father’s punishing hand,
by the taunts and humiliations
by a mother who almost abandons
him—and his family—because nature almost causes her to abandon herself.
Blessed? On his family’s farm, nature invites him to learn her ways:
the same bristling father
trains the boy in choring and fortitude,
one neighbor—a Black—teaches
him chess and friendship,
another—a Jew—bestows upon him
the lyricism of classical music,
he is nursed—anointed—with love
by women, and, finally,
the bird of the title shows the
boy what freedom looks—feels—like.
Wallis shreds the politically generic phrase “family values”; instead, he
renders in hard-edged gem-like scenes the value of a family.
Poet Mary Oliver, in her poem “Hawk,” describes its flight: “into the wind,
belly first” . . . “all the time its eyes fastened harder than love,” as “it
turned into a white blade, which fell.”
Wallis, himself a poet, offers the reader a world seen through a
seven-year-old’s eyes, “harder than love.” If you happened to survive—and
cherish a childhood of your own, you’ll want to read Hawk. You don’t have to
scan the clear blue sky for this red-tailed beauty—it’s at your fingertips.
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