Saturday, August 11, 2018

Review of "The Hawkman", a Retelling of Grimm's "Bearskin"

“In France and Germany, the protagonist is a veteran, starving for lack of work after the war; in Italy, he is a woodsman, wounded by an accident inherent in his profession.  In Spain, he is a pirate, shipwrecked after a poorly deliberated decision. In all places, he is a man who has lost his faith in God, and makes no secret of his apostasy.”

– Miss Eva Williams, “The Hawkman.”

After finishing Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s The Hawkman, I find myself still enamored by her lyrical prose, sifting through words to determine if what I read had really been written. Surely an ending so powerful could not exist?  Of course, it does.

As a retelling of the lesser known Grimm story Bearskin, here’s a quick summary of the fairy tale for those not already familiar: A desperate man makes a pact with the devil. If he can avoid bathing or praying for seven years and sleeps in a bearskin, then the devil will give him limitless wealth. Instead of the disaster you’d expect from such a bargain, the man’s kindness and generosity ultimately win him a bride and, once the seven years are up, they live happily ever after...except for the bride’s two sisters. Since they originally shunned our hero, they are later so full of regret that they kill themselves, netting the devil two souls and making him feel like the winner of the arrangement. Basically, it’s a monstrous bridegroom story, but steps away from tradition by using the man’s perspective instead of the woman’s.  

LaForge’s novel sets this fairy tale during World War I. Michael is an Irish prisoner of war who has been held in German work camps for years. He is finally coming out the other side, but is a broken shell of a man. He falls into himself, withdrawing from a society that shuns him, until he builds the persona of the Hawkman around himself.  When he first meets Miss Eva Williams, he is more beast than human. She brings him back to her cottage in Bridgetonne, England in hopes of helping him heal. Eva is a professor, an American, a writer, and a believer in the fantastical. Much like the bride from the fairy tale, when she sees the Hawkman, she is able to see the man beneath the creature.

What draws you in - aside from the lyricism of the writing itself - is the idea that this story starts with a death. Though, when you think about it, aren’t the greatest love stories those that are actually tragedies in disguise? Whether it be the lovers themselves, or the villain, or even a friend, we find that love and death are often inextricably entwined. This story’s death forces the reader to backpedal and unpack while gripping our seat the entire time. We hope that maybe things will change or that all is not what it seems.  But, of course, it is.

As the story progresses, its layers are slowly peeled back. The town of Bridgetonne takes on a life of its own, as described by the Hawkman’s first encounter with it:

“Bridgetonne was not without other misfits: old maids who, in an earlier time, might have been mistaken for witches, and bachelors who, likewise, would have been called out as warlocks.  But by no means was the village haunted.”

It soon becomes clear that there is more than one transformation in this novel. The town itself shifts from loathing the Hawkman and fearing his presence--even writing him off as a degenerate due to his heritage and situation--to respecting him and taking him in so that he will always have a home. Of course, as the original fairy tale suggests, the devil does indeed take two souls for himself.  For, even though each person the Hawkman touches is changed, there is always one who will be against him. And as he changes into something more man than not, it is as if his transformation causes a change within Miss Williams. She slowly shifts from caretaker, to friend, to lover, and finally to something more in the end.

This novel is a story of love and of overcoming social norms. It is a story of magical realism, of hope and loss, and a story of overcoming trauma. All this is wrapped tightly into a ball and leveled out into a complete journey filled with pain and joy. But, most importantly, it is a story about two people from different backgrounds finding themselves being pieced together until they fit like perfectly aligned puzzle pieces. And when you zoom out to see how these two pieces connect with the other interlocking elements inside the novel, you’ll see how they form a work of art. Much like a painting, this novel rewards those who take the time to contemplate its brush strokes and hold onto its memory even when you walk away.

For fans of beautifully written fairy tales where the language bleeds magic onto the pages like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and those who enjoy a heartbreaking story about war and the consequences it has on the human soul, The Hawkman will be sure to capture and enrapture, and, when it is done, leave you craving more.

Laura Lavelle is a writer from Queens, New York, working in the genres of fantasy, horror, and science fiction with young and new adult themes.  She studied English at Queens College where she won a Silverstein-Peiser award in Fiction before graduating with her bachelor’s degree. However, when she’s not writing she can be found curled up with a book and a cat, hoping that something magical will happen.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate when writers use lesser known fairy tales. I enjoy "Bearskin," but I can't help sympathizing with the two sisters. I don't think I would want to marry someone who hasn't bathed for seven years! A similar idea is in "Don Giovanni de la Fortuna" (Pink Fairy Book).