11 July 2020

Interpreting Incident at Hawk’s Hill through the Autism Lens

How are we to make sense of the 1971 novel Incident at Hawk’s Hill and the actual 1873 event at its root?

In 2004, Prof. Kenneth Kidd wrote about Allan W. Eckert’s novel for the children’s literature journal The Looking Glass. In that paper, titled “Leave It to Badger,” Kidd reported that he’d found no corroboration of Eckert’s claim that he had based the book on a real incident.

At the time, digital book and newspaper archives were in their infancy, so it wasn’t as easy to find the period sources I quoted back here, or the intervening secondary sources I analyzed here. Not only did Eckert have reason to believe he was working off a report of a real incident, but it’s clear that a lost little boy was indeed found in a badger hole in 1873 Manitoba. Would that knowledge have changed Kidd’s analysis?

Kidd made sense of the novel by applying the thinking in his book Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. He discussed the story through the lens of folklore. Many cultures have stories about children being raised by animals, including such famous western examples as Romulus and Remus, Mowgli, and Tarzan. Viewed entirely as fiction, Eckert’s novel fits into that paradigm. Kidd saw an Oedipal dimension to such stories in general and Eckert’s novel in particular.

Of course, when the event at the core of Incident at Hawk’s Hill—a little boy lost on the prairie who survives by finding shelter in a badger’s hole—is real, then the ways people tell that story aren’t new examples of old folklore but attempts to understand what really happened. (Or, in the case of Eckert’s acknowledged fiction, to present what might have happened.)

Bruno Bettelheim’s paper “Feral Children and Autistic Children,” published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1959, was an attempt to explain similar events. Bettelheim posited that the root of many of those stories of children raised by animals is autism, a psychological condition he was groping to understand. Throughout history, he wrote, people had seen “severe cases of infantile autism with seemingly animal-like traits and habits” and explained that behavior by believing the children had been raised by animals.

Bettelheim’s own theory of autism was deeply flawed. In that same paper he posited that it was largely or entirely due to “extreme emotional isolation combined with experiences which they interpreted as threatening them with utter destruction.” As for the source of the emotional isolation, Bettelheim mostly blamed mothers (of course), saying they were the real “feral” ones.

While Bettelheim’s theories about autism and how to respond to it have fallen by the wayside, his suggestion that autism explains many examples of “feral children” has caught on. Uta Frith analyzed some historic cases of "feral children” in Autism: Explaining the Enigma (1989) and elsewhere. She suggested, “an unduly high proportion of feral children suffered from autism before they were abandoned. Indeed autism, with its often severe conduct problems, may be the cause for the abandonment in the first place.”

Frith’s book and others have helped to make our culture much more aware of autism since Incident at Hawk’s Hill appeared in 1971. We now recognize a spectrum of related conditions under the autism label. Not only do we better distinguish autism from other cognitive conditions, but we acknowledge autistic ways of thinking and viewing the world in high-functioning individuals.

That knowledge allows us a new perspective on how authors from earlier generations discussed the story of the little boy lost on the Manitoba prairie. The initial reports said almost nothing about the boy himself, only that he was scared when men came by. It’s not clear how much detail in the oral traditions is based on fact and how much was added by people seeking to comprehend the mystery. Nonetheless, the more detailed recounting by Ernest Seton Thompson and the fictionalized story of Allan W. Eckert lend themselves to interpretation through the lens of autism.

Seton was quite clear about little Harry Service not being normal:
He was a strange child, very small for his age, and shy without being cowardly. He had an odd habit of following dogs, chickens, pigs, and birds, imitating their voices and actions, with an exactness that onlookers sometimes declared to be uncanny.
For Seton, this affinity with animals was a strength. He linked kindness to animals with general goodness, and equated cruelty to animals with cruelty to people. Seton’s tale contained an explanation for how this boy survived in the badger’s hole—because the badger, having lost her own young, showed maternal kindness to this unusual newcomer. And he concluded with an optimistic suggestion that Harry’s experience with the wild badger cured him of his most obvious strangeness.

In Incident at Hawk’s Hill Eckert picked up on those details and made a major subplot of the boy’s parents wrestling with what we’d now call their youngest son’s special needs. Early in the novel, Bill MacDonald tells his wife:
“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.”
When Eckert finally shifts his narration into the little boy’s own perspective, it states:
Ben had no idea why he was so afraid of people. He was not, as his father seemed to think, retarded in his mental processes. He was, in his way, quite intelligent. He could think things through very well for his age and he retained a surprising percentage of what was taught him by his mother and the others. It was just that he kept what he learned to himself. He didn’t like to talk to people.
Was this Eckert’s attempt to depict an autistic child? Someone he knew, something he felt? Or was he picking up imaginatively on the hints in Seton’s story? I have no idea. In the end, Eckert followed Seton’s line and portrayed the experience out on the prairie as making Ben open up more than ever, especially to his father.

Reflecting the greater awareness of autism today, many recent readers of Incident at Hawk’s Hill interpret Ben forthrightly as on the autism spectrum. Monado at Book Crossing describes him as “a boy, whom these days we’d describe as autistic,” while Lori Steinbach at enotes says he probably has “a condition something like autism.” The Home School Book Review said, “Ben would probably be considered somewhat autistic today.” At Goodreads, the Shayne-Train wrote, “now that I [re]read it with adult eyes, it may be the first novel I’d ever read that had an autistic protagonist.” And the study guide for the novel at Bookrags includes a whole section on autism.

Such a diagnosis is of course only a partial explanation for the character, or the history deep behind it. Did the little Service boy who got lost on the Manitoba prairie have some form of autism? How did that affect his lost time, or his family’s and neighbors’ interpretations of it? What experiences with autism, a condition not yet isolated and named in the early 1900s, did Seton have? What about Eckert, writing in 1971? Is it just coincidence that this modern example of a “feral child” story fits so easily with an autism reading, or are we still seeking an explanation with the partial knowledge we have?

No comments: