Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book review: Old Fish Hawk by Mitchell Jayne

The Fish Hawk is an old Indian man, living out his declining years in the frontier town of Bent’s Ford, Missouri. He lived most of his life away from his people, the Osage, and seems to see no need to leave the white folk now. He is drunk most of the time but the townspeople abide his drunkenness because he is useful to them: he is skilled at training and healing dogs and livestock, and he is a talented hunter and woodsman.

When the surrounding farms start getting ravaged by an ancient wild boar, larger and more vicious than any wild pig anyone has seen, folks get their dander up. But when the local simpleton, a gentle soul who has befriended the Fish Hawk, is killed by the boar, the old Indian takes it as his mission to hunt and kill the beast. During the course of the hunt, the Fish Hawk comes to some realizations about his life – both he and his quarry are the last of their kind, relics from another age – and how he would like to live the rest of it.

Old Fish Hawk, by Mitchell Jayne, is a wonderful book, an adventure tale rife with old-time woodlore (and far superior to the last Mitchell Jayne book I read). The author is obviously a woodsman himself, his descriptions of the Missourian forest and animals eloquent and informative. A huge amount of information about frontier life is passed along to the reader as well, from hunting to farming to food preservation and tanning techniques. Anyone interested in frontier Missouri life would do well to pick this book up.

This is by no means a dry history book, however. Its characters are interesting – funny, stubborn, wise, foolish – and nearly every one of them undergoes some personal development by the book’s end. The story is a classic one – man vs. beast – but there is also an exploration of the individual vs. himself that makes it more than a mere adventure story.

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