Hare, Badger and Hawk -- a review by Susan Price

Hare's Choice by Dennis Hamley
There's a tiny village school in Herefordshire, so small that it has only two classes: infants and
primary.
          Two children, Harry and Sarah, twin brother and sister, are walking to this school one morning when they discover a dead hare.The more they study it, the more impressed they are by its beauty and the more saddened by its death. They carry the body to school, to show their headmaster and fellow students.
          The girl says, in a burst of feeling, "We should tell a story about the Hare."

           We, the readers, follow Hare into an after-life, jostling with all the thousands of animals, of all kinds who have died that day...

          The headmaster of the little school sees a teaching opportunity. If the children can, between them, devise a story about the hare, if they can each write a piece of it and perform the whole for the infants -- well, then, the head will see it printed up as a book, with all their names on the front. It will sold in the village and at the Teachers' Centre.
          Harry and Sarah are clear about what they want in the story, but there is a struggle between them and some of the boys who can think of nothing but explosions and rocket-launchers and want to tell of squadrons of hares fighting with them against alien invaders... A girl wants to tell a cuddly story of cute animals who live in houses and behave like idealised humans in fur suits. One boy is insistent that the animals in the stories must do nothing that a real animal couldn't do...
          But after much discussion and argument, the children find their story and tell it and gain immense satisfaction in doing so.
          The story they create and remember has a curious effect on the after-life of the hare...

I didn't know what to expect when I started reading this book, with its striking cover and beautiful illustrations by Meg Rutherford. An animal story, perhaps, the tale of a hare's life... Or, with the arrival of Sarah and Harry, a school story... But then we walk, with the dead hare, into animals' heaven.
          This has to be one of the oddest, most original stories I've ever read, for children or adults. And when I say 'odd', I mean that as a big compliment. I like odd.
          The prose is beautiful, simple and clear. Every time you think you know where the story's headed and you can predict the next step -- it takes  you somewhere surprising instead.

Dennis Hamley was a teacher and advisor for many years, and the book was inspired by watching a class of children in a small rural primary school. One child had found a dead fox and  brought it to school. Guided by their teacher, this class of mixed ages invented their own story of the fox's life. Dennis was impressed by their creativity and also wondered: Which was the real fox? There was a dead animal which had once been a wild, living creature, its inner life unknowable to us, however we try to guess at it.
          And there was Fox, created by the children with their imagining of its feelings and thoughts. Fox would live on in their memories and, perhaps, in the memories of those who read the story. Those children, grown, might pass the story of Fox on to their own children... The story fox could live its life in story for several generations -- as do many animals in stories: Bagheera the panther, Peter Rabbit, Tarka the Otter...

This is what happens, in Hare's Choice, to the beautiful dead hare. Alongside the unknowable wild creature, killed so suddenly and pointlessly, there is another hare: the children's hare. The children's hare knows herself and has words. She becomes a heroine and, indeed, a queen.

The life of the little school, its pupils and dedicated headmaster is described wonderfully well, with child characters that any teacher or writer used to visiting schools will recognise, but the book goes beyond that, quietly and beautifully. It speaks of the power of creation and the power of story-telling. Distressed by her sorrow for the dead hare, the child cries, "We should tell a story about the hare!" How often has that been the impulse behind creation.
          You don't have to be 'an artist' or 'an author' to be excited by creation, this book says; and when you tell a story, you spin and create worlds, you grant immortality.

This edition of the book, The Hare Trilogy, contains two other books: Badger's Fate and Hawk's Vision.

Badger's Fate by Dennis Hamley
In Badger's Fate, we visit the same school a year later. Harry and Sarah, together with others of the child characters have moved on to secondary school. Some infants have moved on into the primary class.
          Emma lives on a local farm outside the village. Badgers live in the woods nearby and she and her parents have watched the badger cubs play outside their sett. And then the badger-baiters arrive. Emma is traumatised by finding the mauled, dead adult badgers, their cubs having been stolen. Dennis Hamley does not shy away from the cruelty of reality.

And again, we readers pass into the void with the dead badger and jostle among the countless other animals that have died or been killed.

The children of the school are keen to repeat their creation of a story and when they hear of the outrage against the badgers, they decide that is what the story must be about. Emma, however, thinks the reality too terrible to spin tales around and is only reluctantly persuaded to take on the story's ending.

          The children's telling transforms the badgers from victims to heroes, who fight back and overcome -- until the end when Emma, unable to face turning the horror she saw into the fictional happy ending the others want, breaks down and runs from the classroom. Other children take over and provide two different conclusions. It's decided that both will be published and readers can choose which they prefer. After all, as the teachers point out, famous books like Great Expectations and The French Lieutenant's Woman have more than one ending.

When we readers join Badger in the Other World, we find there is a struggle going on between reality and fiction there too. Will Badger make the same choice as did Hare? -- Will Badger's mate make the same choice?

In the world of the little school, Emma also struggles. She has nightmares about the tortured badger. All along she felt that it was wrong to make a story about the badger's suffering. But even more wrong to give the story a happy, triumphant ending; to make it into a lie. At last she writes her own ending. She writes of the badger's grief, suffering and helplessness. It's fiction, but it's the truth.
          She takes her ending to school and it's typed out and pasted into the published copies --

And once his truth is told in the world of the school, Badger finds a way to live in his Other World. The telling of truth in a story can bring release from trauma, it can share and ease suffering. The story becomes not only about the power of story-telling but about how, as a line on the cover says, 'Things aren't untrue just because they never happened.'

Hawk's Vision by Dennis Hamley
The last book, Hawk's Vision  moves things forward again by a year. This time, the central human character is Jamila, whose family come from India, but who finds herself at home on the downs. She loves to watch the hawk as it turns high above, keeping watch and she likens it to a guardian, a protector. But when she sees it stoop, she knows that it is making a kill. It reminds her of the tales told by her family of Shiva the Destroyer, who is also the Creator.

As Jamila joins her class in the little school, to propose that they should tell another story, we learn that the school is to close. Despite the superb teaching, it's too small to be 'viable.' The children are to bus into other, larger primary schools in nearby towns. Jamila wants to tell a story about the hawk, her 'Shiva': protector and destroyer.

As before, the children devise a story between them. It tells how the hawk comes close to destroying all the animals and it involves a wizard-cum-computer-whizz who creates a door into another imaginary world, a 'virtual world.' But although, through her involvement with the computer-whiz, Hawk comes near to destroying the animals, she  also rescues them.

At the end of that afternoon, as the children walk home, it's the end of the little school forever. The children who walk away from it have been changed by their story-telling. They have grown in confidence, or have been led into new ways of thinking. One boy, who never enjoyed the story-telling because it had animals doing things animals would never do, is glad that he will never have to take part in such nonsense again. He goes home and 'shuts the door behind him.'

Jamila walks on the downs and while she watches the hawk she recreated in her story, the image of Shiva, Who destroys to create, hovers over the end of a story about the school's ending and the end of this part of the children's lives. They will go forward from this ending to make something new.

What are these short books about? They're about some children making up stories about animals... About children growing up...  About how creativity works... About the immense power of creativity, language and story-telling... They're about the Art of great teaching... And probably much more that I've missed.

Three truly remarkable books in one. Three short stories 'for children' which unfold and unfold and unfold... You really can't tell what you might find in them.



Susan Price is an acclaimed writer for children, having won the Carnegie medal and the Guardian Award.


Comments

Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for your enthusiastic endorsement of such a delightful sounding set - with such strong creative elements. I have a granddaughter's birthday coming up - always difficult to pick something special so soon after Christmas. I think this shall be my choice.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Sue. I'll send this on to my granddaughter (but not until I've read it).

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