10 July 2020

How a Real Story Became Incident at Hawk’s Hill

In 1873, a young boy went missing from his family’s farm in Manitoba. After more than a week, a man of Native and European ancestry found him hiding in a badger hole. That much we can read in nineteenth-century sources from Winnipeg.

In the early 1900s the nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton picked up that story from some Manitobans. He published a version that went into much more detail about how the little boy had actually shared that hole for days with a mother badger that had recently lost its young. Seton or his informants turned the mysterious event into a morality tale, which he published in at least three books.

This 1960 article from the Manitoba Historical Society’s Manitoba Pageant magazine mentions some other local recountings: by Archbishop Samuel Matheson in 1936, in Country Guide in 1951 by Margaret Arnett MacLeod, by the Manitoba Free Press in 1953. I haven’t seen those versions, so I don’t know what new details they provide and what evidence they were based on.

At some point the American writer Allan W. Eckert (1931-2011) came across Seton’s version of the story. Eckert had made himself a specialist in ecological writing, penning most of the scripts for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. He also found a niche writing on Native Americans, including outdoor dramas about Tecumseh and Blue Jacket. (That pairing of nature and Native Americans probably reflects a bias within our culture.)

Eckert’s nonfiction tended toward the imaginative. One of his early magazine sales was an article for the American Legion magazine in 1962 about the disappearance of the US Navy air training mission Flight 19 off the coast of Florida. Eckert appears to have added details not in the documentary record, and that event later became a keystone of the “Bermuda Triangle” legend.

Likewise, Kirkus said of Eckert’s 1992 biography of Tecumseh, A Sorrow in Our Heart, “in its interpretative zeal it strays from, or at least embellishes, the historical record to the point of being suspect.” Even Kirkus’s good review of That Dark and Bloody River noted Eckert’s method of “'reconstituting' credible dialogue among people in briefly reported events.”

On the other hand, Eckert’s fiction was often based closely on historical fact. His first novel was about the extinction of the great auk. Another was based on an event in the life of Daniel Boone. In the late 1960s Eckert started a series of historical sagas about the “Winning of America.”

Eckert saw the skeleton of a novel in Seton’s tale of the lost boy and the badger. The tale offered a chance to write about both the frontier past and the natural world. And it came with the gloss of nonfiction. When Eckert published his novel Incident at Hawk’s Hill in 1971, he stated up front in a short author’s note, “The story which follows is a slightly fictionalized version of an incident which actually occurred at the time and place noted.” Toward the end of the book, Eckert introduced characters who shared the names of two of Seton’s informants.

Eckert changed some details of the story, starting with calling the little boy not Harry (or Willie) Service but Benjy MacDonald. Seton had written that the event took place near “Bird’s Hill,” and Eckert turned that into “Hawk’s Hill,” named after a hawk the MacDonalds see. (The original Manitoba landmark was named after a settler named Bird, not an actual bird.)

Many other details and the plot of Eckert’s story came directly from Seton’s narrative. From the outset, the little boy shows more affinity for animals than for people. Seton’s villain—a nasty neighbor named Grogan—appears under the name of George Burton. He’s not a “half-breed,” however; in fact, he’s cruel to Natives as well as animals. As in Seton’s story, Benjy wanders away after a prairie chicken and needs to take shelter from a storm. A mother badger has been injured in the villain’s trap and lost her babies, leaving her with unfulfilled maternal instincts.

The real boy was lost for about ten days, but Incident at Hawk’s Hill draws that time out to two months. Eventually, Benjy is rescued by a relative rather than (as with the real boy) a stranger; where Seton wrote that that relative was a cousin, Eckert found more drama in making the rescuer a brother.

When Benjy returns, he initially behaves like a badger, but eventually returns to human behavior, stronger for his experience in the wild. Finally, just as in Seton’s telling, the villain shoots the badger, not realizing it has become a family companion, and the family unites to drive him away. The experience brings the MacDonalds closer, particularly father and son. But the family has also decided, with a visiting archbishop’s help, to keep the full story secret so as not to make Benjy appear stranger than people already think of him.

Eckert didn’t write Incident at Hawk’s Hill for children. The point of view skips around among many characters—adults, children, badger, and omniscient narrator. Though six-year-old Benjy is a central character, for many pages Eckert describes him entirely from the outside, and not in appealing terms—he’s small for his age, developmentally odd. It takes several chapters before readers are privy to Benjy’s thoughts, and then only when he’s the only human in the scene. Much of the book follows the drama of the MacDonald family searching for him or reacting to his return.

The early reviews treated Incident at Hawk’s Hill as an adult novel. Critics focused on Eckert’s reputation as a nature writer, with the New York Times calling the book a “folk fable” written “without recourse to undue anthropomorphism.” Kirkus’s reviewer, who could barely stand the story, concluded, “Were it not for Mr. Eckert’s natural history credentials one might think he had been sniffing too much meadow grass.”

Soon, however, people began to view Incident at Hawk’s Hill as a book for children. It was, after all, about a young boy and an animal making friends. It was on the short side, well under 200 pages. And it had pictures. Little, Brown commissioned scratchboard art from John Schoenherr, who had illustrated Sterling North’s Rascal (1963) and Walt Morey’s Gentle Ben (1965)—two novels about boys and animals written for children. (Schoenherr had an earlier career as a science-fiction illustrator. He would go on to win the Caldecott Medal for Owl Moon.)

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books deemed Incident at Hawk’s Hill “An adult novel that should appeal to many young readers.” And in 1972 the novel was named a Newbery Honor Book. That year the judging committee appears to have been unusually generous, naming five Honor Books, more than in any other year in the 1960s and 1970s. From then on, Eckert’s novel was treated as a children’s book.

Disney adapted Incident at Hawk’s Hill into a 1975 television movie called The Boy Who Talked to Badgers. This treatment made Benjy, played by ten-year-old Christian Juttner, more of a likable hero. It switched some episodes around, but the basics of Seton’s and Eckert’s story remained. One notable addition was Denver Pyle as narrator, revealed at the end to be Benjy grown up.

Almost two decades later, in 1998, Eckert published Return to Hawk’s Hill, starting at the end of the first novel and then going over much the same ground. Benjy, a little older, wanders off again. Even the villain returns, despite having been run off before. But the new story had one major difference. This time, instead of a badger Benjy falls in with a community of mixed Cree and French descent who look after him, and his father learns to apologize for his prejudice against these Métis.

Return to Hawk’s Hill thus restored the helpful role of Métis in the real story of the lost boy in Manitoba. As specified in the nineteenth-century sources, a man of Cree and European ancestry rescued the boy from the badger hole. Seton’s early-1900s version had not only erased that rescuer from the story but made the villain a “half-breed.”

I have no idea whether Eckert had learned of those original sources by the time he wrote Return to Hawk’s Hill and set out to fill a deficit in his earlier novel. He may simply have wanted to create a sequel to one of his most successful books and looked to his interest in indigenous North Americans for inspiration. Either way, he added yet more significance in the mysterious story of a lost boy in the badger hole.

TOMORROW: Further meaning for 21st-century readers.

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