The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 8, No 3 (2004)

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Alice's
Academy

Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs, editor


Leave It to Badger: Allan W. Eckert's Incident at Hawk's Hill

Kenneth Kidd


Kenneth Kidd is Associate Professor of English at the University of Florida. He is author of Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale (Minnesota, 2004) and coeditor of Wild Things: Children's Culture and Ecocriticism (Wayne State, 2004).


Anyone who thinks feral tales are simple will benefit from this insightful article. Kenneth Kidd's discussion of feral tales in the context of Allan W. Eckert's novel illustrates the complexities of feral tales and situates the ideas of human, Other, and nature within them.
(Elizabeth Pandolfo Briggs, editor, Alice's Academy)

Allan W. Eckert's Incident at Hawk's Hill (1971) was one of five Newbery Honor Books in 1972. In this novel, a shy, misunderstood, and animal-identified boy named Ben wanders away from his home and into the den of a female badger, who adopts and nurtures him for several months. The Medal winner that year was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert O'Brien's tale of brainy lab rats who escape and establish a utopian society. Both O'Brien's rats and Eckert's Ben seek refuge underground from the abuses of man. Both the rats and Ben are transformed by contact with the Other, but while the rats can no longer be rats, Ben's life with badger makes him all the more human in the end.

Eckert's interest in the classic feral child theme shouldn't surprise us. He is the author of over 150 television scripts for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom television show, as well as hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles on life outdoors. His other books, numbering more than twenty, include a history of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, field guides to owls and wading birds, and assorted nature novels, among them The Crossbreed (1968), Savage Journey (1979), and Song of the Wild (1980) (Commire 72). Across genres, Eckert's work, like that of other naturalist and "nativist" authors, details the lives of animals but also imagines our continuities with them.

According to the Author's Note, Incident at Hawk's Hill is a "slightly fictionalized version of an incident which actually occurred at the time and place noted." Every account I've seen of the book repeats this assertion, but Eckert provides no sources, and I have not been able to find anything else about the incident behind the fiction. In children's literature reference books, Eckert's novel is typically praised as realistic, as if against its own improbability. How, then, to account for the perception that this story is truthful, rather than an exercise in wishful thinking? We learn a lot from Wild Kingdom and other such productions, which often anthropomorphize nature and affirm our cheerier fantasies about animal-human relation. Nature is always cultural to some degree, already scripted and screened. In the case of Eckert -- as with Ernest Thompson Seton and other nature writers -- the ability to write imaginative nonfiction authorizes fiction as realistic. The truth effect of Incident at Hawk's Hill is contingent upon our collective faith in nature expertise alongside our actual lack of knowledge about the likelihood of, say, adoption by badger.

Eckert's story seems all the more realistic, I suggest, because it operates within a specific established folkloric tradition, one in which science and mythology are entangled. We accept not so much Eckert's story in particular but rather the frame story of animal adoption, familiar from other variants. As I've shown in my book Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale, stories of feral children, or feral tales, abound in world mythology and folklore and continue to flourish in our own time, surfacing not just in literature and popular culture but also in scientific and academic discourse. It seems likely that Incident at Hawk's Hill is fashioned as a feral tale -- whatever Eckert believed about the story behind the fiction. To begin with, Eckert sets his novel in nineteenth- century Canada and compares his protagonists to native people. Structuralist motif indexes show that feral tales seem especially to abound in the mythologies of Greece and Rome and of the indigenous societies in North America. Eckert of course, is no native, any more than Rudyard Kipling, who fashioned his Mowgli stories from folklore as well as from reports of reputed wolf boys in British India. Eckert may have based his story on legend, as the book's ending implies, but in doing so he participates in the larger Anglo-American project of collecting, rewriting, and in some cases, entirely fabricating native folklore. Eckert's appropriation of a nativist idiom ensures the realism of Incident while also bespeaking classic fantasies about acculturation.

Moreover, Eckert plays upon, or perhaps into, the developmental metanarrative of the feral tale. Most feral children are boys who are raised by animal stepmothers and who struggle with fathers or father surrogates, in keeping with the motif's oedipal thematics. Mowgli and Tarzan are the most famous literary examples. The story of Oedipus is genetically related to the feral tale, as the research of Propp and others make clear (see Making American Boys, 9). Incident at Hawk's Hill is also a tale of oedipal conflict and resolution. Ben struggles to earn the approval and respect of his father. Eckert concludes the prologue with these words: "It was strange that in this period of development, when empires and governments were being established, when civilization was carving its way into the raw Canadian wilderness, the greatest problem of the MacDonald family should center around this six-year-old son" (xiv). In fact, such a centering is far from strange, as the feral tale typically presents sociocultural conflict as the oedipalized story of an exceptional child -- often a boy who goes underground, literally or metaphorically or both. Rather than concluding that Incident affirms psychoanalytic wisdom, however, I suggest that novels such as this help fashion and endorse that wisdom. Oedipality -- and psychic life more generally -- is a literary effect as much as a truth demonstrated in literature.

Eckert's novel is designed to look like historical fiction, an inventive but otherwise accurate chronicle of a bizarre "incident." It is set in 1870, in a small farming community about twenty miles north of Winnipeg. The prologue establishes the historical scene and the elegiac language of vanishing natives. "The Indians knew this powerful, northward-flowing stream best," explains Eckert in the opening line of the book, and later the white men, "[a]lmost as if in apology" to the Cree Indians they displaced, named their city Winnipeg, meaning Murky Water. Eckert next introduces his adult characters, William and Esther MacDonald, who arrived in the area in 1850 and have since been transforming the fertile land into a substantial homestead while raising four children. Tall and angular, Bill is of hardy Scottish stock, "his face Indian-like in the craggy hawkishness of its features, though there was no Indian blood in him" (x). Six-year-old Ben, the youngest MacDonald, has his own, more troubling native resemblances.

The story proper begins with this line: "Ben MacDonald was following a mouse." Small and solitary, Ben bonds intensely with animals, imitating their sounds and movements to perfection. If old MacDonald has a farm, the youngest family member worships the wilderness, like the nomadic natives he and his family helped oust. His animal affinities and mimetic tendencies alarm Bill MacDonald. The tension between Bill and Ben is clear from the beginning, but as in many folktales, another figure stands in as the supplemental bad father. That man is George Burton, the MacDonalds' new neighbor, a vicious, uncouth trapper who terrorizes the area with his dog Lobo and takes pleasure in brutalizing wild creatures. One day Burton and Lobo drop by for a visit, and to everyone's amazement, Ben tames Lobo with a glance. Burton is impressed, but also shaken by Ben's powers. Judging Ben to be three years old instead of his actual six, Burton seizes the boy roughly and throws him into the air, terrifying him (13). Ben flees the scene. Afterwards, a disgusted Bill says of Ben "'Oh, what's the use of trying to fool ourselves? He isn't normal, Esther, and we both know it, whether or not you're willing to admit it. He not only isn't normal physically, he's not normal mentally, either. Look how he acts toward animals'" (20). Esther comes to Ben's defense, defying Bill's diagnosis (22). Eckert then gives us insight into Ben's own fears, first of Burton, then of his father: "Father was the worst [of the family]; he was so big and so demanding, so short with Ben and so, well, sort of threatening" (25; Eckert's italics).

Chapter 2 shifts our attention from Ben to badger, imaginatively sketching the life history and recent exploits of a large female badger entering MacDonald territory. She is four years old, and weighs twenty- three lbs., only seven less than Ben himself. Eckert shares many facts about badgers along the way; we learn, for instance, that badgers belong to the weasel family, and that the typical gestation period for badgers is six to eight weeks. When she nears the MacDonald homestead, badger is preparing for her third litter, and apparently "[a] badger's mother-love and instinct to protect her young at all costs and despite possible danger to self makes her a decidedly dangerous foe" (39). She is accompanied by her mate, who scouts the territory for food. In the next several chapters, we learn more about badger's preparations and about Ben's growing reputation in the community as a "monster or throwback, an animal boy" (44). Perhaps worried that readers will also think Ben a freak, Eckert justifies Ben's eccentricities as only those of a young naturalist. At the end of Chapter 3, Ben and badger finally meet. He touches her; she licks him. Ben is euphoric. But when he tries to tell his father about his encounter, Bill warns the boy to shun such dangerous beasts.

The plot thickens when Burton traps and kills the father badger, muttering to himself ""Lord A'mighty . . . iffen you ain't jus' about as heavy as that li'l MacDonald chil'" (75), suggesting Ben's imminent role as surrogate child and surrogate spouse. Burton takes the badger to the MacDonalds for skinning, noting that the animal is "'sort'a betwixt an' between right now,'" (incidentally, the same phrase Barrie uses to describe his feral boy, Peter Pan). Ben tries to interfere with the skinning, and his father strikes the boy in frustration, sending Ben running for cover. Burton voices his approval: "'Reckon iffen you give 'im a few good whalin's, you'll knock some of that queerness outa him'" (88). But the usually more pacifist Bill regrets his actions, and Eckert finds a better way to manage Ben's queerness and reintegrate him into the family system. About halfway through the novel, Ben wanders away during a thunderstorm and gets lost. He does not run away, for although Bill's blow suggests an oedipal crisis, Eckert does not want to paint Bill as tyrannical or Ben as rebellious. During the storm, Ben takes shelter in a badger hole, and soon reunites with badger, who quickly accepts his presence and tries to care for the boy. A search party is organized -- "Pay attention to small spaces," urges Esther (138) -- but the search backfires when Ben spots Burton and stays hidden. Just before Ben arrives, badger had suffered her own trauma, falling victim to the same trap that claimed her mate and escaping only after her pups died from starvation.

In the weeks and then months that follow, Ben adapts to life down under, eating the food that badger brings him (prairie chicken, garter snakes, insects). She adopts him in place of her pups, even tries to nurse him, "exposing her milk-swollen nipples to him" (147), but Ben refuses this particular nourishment. This section, the novel's centerpiece, harks back to the accounts of wolf-children that so influenced Kipling and others, and to the den mother fantasy so persistent in our own culture, for which Kipling is partly responsible, having given permission to Baden-Powell to model his Wolf Cub program on the Jungle Books. American Cub Scouting was introduced in 1929. Cubs were restricted to their own neighborhood, and could not camp out overnight (Macleod 296; see also Brogan). The Den Mother assisted the Cub Master, and, if my own experience is any indication, sometimes ran the den outright. Essentially, Moms preside over dens and the domestic arts, and then men take over when the pack goes officially Scouting. Then begins the outward-bound fun begins. In the States, Cubbing grew in popularity by the mid-1950s, and with it the iconography of the den mother and her fierce maternal instinct, an instinct that crosses even the species barrier, as we see in Incident.

Folklore scholar Michael P. Carroll claims that "viewing contemporary reports [of feral children] as projections of the Oedipal fantasies explains several things," chiefly the usually female gender of the animal parent and her identity as a carnivore (78). Think, for example, of Kipling's fierce den mother Raksha, The Demon, who defies Shere Khan to protect the infant Mowgli; even Father Wolf is stunned by her ferocity. "Shere Khan might have faced Father Wolf," explains Kipling, "but he could not stand up against Mother Wolf, for he knew that where he was she had all the advantage of the ground, and would fight to the death" (5). Mother Wolf stands her ground at the foot of the wolf cave. In folklore, male carnivores often threaten humans, while female carnivores protect them, even against their own mates. If the big bad wolf devours the innocent child, mother wolf will defend that same child to the death.

In the jungle fantasies of Kipling and Burroughs, the feral boy enjoys close contact with his surrogate mother but must struggle with father figures. However devoted Mother Wolf may be, Mowgli must win over Father Wolf and, more daunting, vanquish Shere Khan. Tarzan's induction into male culture is more violent and more overtly oedipal (not to mention Darwinian); he must kill first Tublat, his rival ape stepfather, and later Kerchak, leader of the apes (see Griswold 104-120). In Incident at Hawk's Hill, George Burton is Ben's Kerchak or Shere Khan, the murderous male who poses a direct threat but also embodies the darker side of fatherhood. The oedipal father against whom Ben is pitted is split into two characters, Burton and Bill MacDonald. In the first part of the novel, Bill is ashamed of Ben and openly hostile toward him, but as the novel progresses, Burton assumes that role and Bill becomes a kinder, gentler daddy. Burton's very presence unsettles the uneasy relation between Ben and his father; at one point before Ben disappears, Bill actually hits Ben partly because he's furious at Burton. Eckert's management of father-son tension is folkloric, and the seeming psychological wisdom of the novel further affirms the realism of the improbable plot.

While the animal stepmother provides refuge from humanity, Ben must work through his oedipal drama and give her up -- that is, if we believe psychoanalysis and stories such as Incident. Ostensibly the boy must leave his animal mother behind to achieve human estate. Again and again we see this plot carried out, not just in imaginative literature but in clinical and pop-psychological writing. In popular accounts of disturbed boys, such as Eleanor Craig's One, Two, Three: The Story of Matt, a Feral Boy (1978), or Torey Hayden's various books, a female caseworker usually serves as a surrogate mother, who restores the boy to some assurance of masculinity (if not to his actual father), confirming the oedipal pattern, if with less utopian results.

I cannot here trace the permutations of this den mother fantasy and its oedipal frame across the twentieth century; suffice it to say that such fantasy drew from and helped animate popular theories of mothering -- mostly of "bad" mothering -- as well as popular applications of psychoanalysis, notably Bruno Bettelheim's controversial work on autism (see McDonnell). It's not surprising, then, that Incident at Hawk's Hill also imagines the mother not only as animal, but as de facto inadequate or bad. While at first Ben flourishes in the safety and comfort of badger's den, he soon begins to suffer. After a few weeks, Eckert tells us, "Ben was astonishingly badger-like in all he did" (153), walking on all fours, sleeping during the day, hunting at night. On occasion, thoughts of home come flooding back, but soon he forgets his family. He also soon deteriorates; he "had virtually ceased being a human being" (154). He is weak and malnourished. Ben must relinquish his new lifestyle or die. After a close encounter with Lobo, in which Ben and badger kill the fierce dog, Ben is discovered by his older brother John, nearly two months after his mysterious disappearance. The family crisis effects a transformation in the sixteen-year-old boy; he becomes manlier. Scouring the country on horseback, John finally finds the badger den, and spirits his brother home, an angry badger loping after them.

Ben is "in unspeakable condition," filthy, skeletal, covered in scars (177). He is barely recognizable as human, and himself does not recognize anyone until he stumbles toward Esther, crying "'Mama . . . Mama . . . Mama . . . '" (180). This final section of the novel is perhaps even stranger than the previous one, as the MacDonald family tries to adjust to Ben's regressed condition and to the presence of badger, who refuses to let the boy out of her sight. Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins remark in their dictionary entry on the novel that while Ben's adoption by badger is "skillfully written" and "believable," the family's adoption of badger is "somewhat less plausible" (311) -- again affirming the realism of life down under. The post-rescue period "was the beginning of an unusually difficult time of another sort," reports Eckert in his matter-of-fact tone, "but little by little the female badger became a member of the MacDonald family" (181). Even as Ben decompresses, he attends to badger's every need. For a week Ben alternates "between two lives" (182), using badger as a transitional object yet again. He thus comes into his own, talking non- stop about life with badger. His adventure gives him independence and pride. "'But now I know a lot of things nobody else knows, don't I?'" he asks (185). His vocabulary increases tenfold, and he's finally ready to begin school.

But if Ben tells his story openly, he'll never be able to lead a normal life. "He would be pointed out ever after as a curiosity, a freak, and be called names like 'badger boy' or worse" (185). The problem is solved "in a way which Esther could only describe as providential" (185) -- first, two visitors to the family, Doc Simpson and Archbishop Peter Matheson, advise the McDonalds to tell Ben's story as a parable, as parables are "more valuable than mere hard facts" (187). Reminded by Doc Simpson that one Indian name for badger is 'Mittenusk', the archbishop concocts a 'parable' to the effect that Ben was rescued and adopted by a powerful Blackfoot chief named Mittenusk until he could reunited with his family, "'who, like the good shepherd, have refused to give him up for lost'" (188). The parable will honor Ben's experience but also protect his reputation.

"One major problem remained: the badger" (190). She refuses to leave, and Ben hopes to take her to school with him. That problem is solved when Burton shows up and shoots her, not knowing she's part of the family. An enraged Bill struggles violently with Burton and finally drives from the community. As the novel ends, badger is seriously wounded, and Bill and Ben are reconciled at last. "'If she . . . dies . . . would you help me bury her, Dad?'" asks Ben. Dad promises to help his son bury her in her own hole, where she belongs, and in the book's final lines, Ben rushes into his father's arms,"sobbing uncontrollably" and clinging "so fiercely . . . that it almost cut off his father's breath, but William MacDonald didn't mind. Not at all" (207). This return to father is made possible through the deaths of badger, the animal mom, and Burton, the "animal" man.

Given the weird psychodynamics that seem to be at play in the novel, it's tempting to read it psychoanalytically, to see in Ben's return the successful resolution of the oedipal complex. But Incident at Hawk's Hill isn't so much a text to be read through Freud or Lacan as one that derives from the same folkloric and pop-diagnostic discourse that animates psychoanalysis and its ancillary genres. As I show in Making American Boys, both Freud and Lacan wrote their own variants of the feral tale, to help illustrate their respective concerns with sexual pathology and the challenges of language. Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection, as outlined in Powers of Horror (1980), seems to be even more useful for understanding the feral tale precisely because it assumes the same task: imagining the unspeakable. Abjection, in her view, returns us to an impossibility of self, the impetus for religion and other symbolic systems painfully exposed by the mass horrors of the twentieth century, and crucially the Holocaust. The feral is perhaps the best analog of the abject. The snarling, spitting wolf-child, devoid of language, encounters the man of science and culture, and/or serves not as his Other but as his abject.

Even in Eckert's more romantic novel, as in Kristeva's imaginative work, the maternal is at first imitated (pages are devoted to Ben's mimetic skills) and then becomes the abject. While badger is the heroine of our story, it's hard not to wince when Ben eats her food and starts to deteriorate physically. Even so, badger is not nearly as abject or abjecting as is George Burton, whose "brows seemed abnormally bushy" (7) and whose "stench . . . sickened Ben" (12). Through his struggles with Burton and Lobo, and his struggle for survival in the wild, Ben is pushed toward father, toward speech itself, and toward the symbolic system. Badger is effaced, if never quite replaced by Bill, by Ben's new words, and by a native chief who condenses legend, history, and parable. Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror that as the child struggles for autonomy, "[d]iscourse is being substituted for maternal care, and with it a fatherhood belonging more to the realm of the ideal than of the superego" (45). In Black Sun (1987), her related book on melancholia, Kristeva speculates along similar lines about melancholic incorporation and the "maternal thing," claiming that "Matricide is our vital necessity, the sine-qua-non condition of our individuation . . . " (27-8).

Kristeva's theory is as speculative as Incident itself, makes use of the same "primal" but obviously rhetorical association, binding together the animal and maternal in and as the abject. Abjection, she writes in Powers, presents us "with those fragile states where man strays on the territories of animal . . . [and] with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language" (12-13; italics in original). Not surprisingly, Kristeva offers a rereading of the case of Little Hans (1909), arguably Freud's first exercise in feral narrative, identifying symbolic activity not only as the solution to our problems but as the object of our phobic desire. Language shores us up, she agrees, but it also fails us. I do not argue that Kristeva's work is shaped directly by the feral tale, only that her concern with the abject draws from, speaks to, and helps energize a central narrative and therapeutic problem: how to speak for those who cannot tell their own stories, whose traumas might be unrepresentable? Literature and psychoanalysis are, in part, interrelated responses to -- and formulations of -- that therapeutic problem or challenge. Although she challenges the sexism of Freudian and Lacanian theory, Kristeva also affirms that sexism through her association of abjection and maternity. As I've argued elsewhere, we should be wary of using psychoanalysis to interpret literature, as they are mutually enabling discourses.

Even so, Kristeva's hermeneutics of suspicion when it comes to language can help us interrogate masculinist versions of the feral tale and professional work with troubled children, both of which valorize symbolic activity -- learning to speak, or using proper syntax -- as the baseline for personhood. To her credit, Kristeva has her doubts about the ease of giving up Mom and moving along. Incident at Hawk's Hill manages Ben's non-verbal "queerness" through the space of the den, which begins as an animal-maternal haven from the heartless world of humans but is then relocated to that world, becoming a site of man-making and symbolic aptitude. In this sense, the novel produces oedipality, tells a familiar story of family life and social progress. Ben's life with badger assumes the importance of a primal scene, if not the primal scene of sexuality, then of language. In the psychoanalytic idiom of the novel, Ben's abjection, which intensifies but then exhausts his maternal-animal cathexis, ensures that he will grow up. For Kristeva, the dramas of childhood are not so simply the prelude to a mature humanity or blissful mastery of the symbolic, but rather the experiences through which we achieve an uncertain selfhood. In Incident, however, Ben will most likely live happily ever after.

 

Works Cited

Brogan, Hugh. Mowgli's Sons: Kipling and Baden-Powell's Scouts. London: Jonathan Cape, 1987.

Carroll, Michael P. "The Folkloric Origins of Modern 'Animal-Parented' Stories." Journal of Folklore Research 21.1 (January-April 1984): 63-85.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 29. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 71-72.

Eckert, Allan W. Incident at Hawk's Hill. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1971.

Griswold, Jerry. Audacious Kids: Coming of Age in America's Classic Children's Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Helbig, Althea K. and Agnes Regan Perkins. Dictionary of American Children's Fiction, 1960-1984. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986. 310-11.

Kidd, Kenneth. Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books. Ed. W. W. Robson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. 1987. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

_____. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. 1980. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

McDonnell, Jane Taylor. "On Being the 'Bad' Mother of an Austistic Child." In "Bad" Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America, eds. Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky. New York: NYU Press, 1998. 220-229.

Macleod, David I. Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

 

Kenneth Kidd


Volume 8, Issue 3 The Looking Glass September, 2004

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