By Elizabeth Wroten
TBT: Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard
On 22, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Originally published 1951
From GoodReads: Fire-Hunter is the story of Hawk, a pre-historic man who is banished from his tribe for breaking the tribal law by inventing a spear-launching tool. He is left behind with Willow, an injured young woman abandoned by the tribe because of her inability to travel in the nomadic lifestyle they employ.
So, I read this book in either fifth or sixth grade and despite the fact that I can’t remember exactly when I read it, the story and enjoyment of it has stuck with me for all these years. I don’t know why it popped into my head a few weeks ago and I don’t know why this time around I decided I wanted to find a copy, but I thought it would be interesting to see if it held up after all these years. It took a bit of Googling around to find the title, but I knew if I saw a picture of the cover I would know it and sure enough I found it. I was more surprised to find that my library system still had a copy! I’m a big proponent of weeding, but I’m glad that despite it’s age this one hadn’t been pulled from the shelf (I can’t attest to how much it’s checked out, but the book is in great shape so maybe it should still be on the shelf).
I was even more surprised by the fact that I liked this book as much, if not more, now as I did all those years ago in elementary school. I still remember when the teacher handed out copies of the book. There were two options and it seemed everyone wanted this book over the other (whose title I cannot remember). There were not enough copies for everyone in the class to have one and I was lucky to get one of the last few. I must have devoured this book because I remember it only took a few days of in-class reading to finish it. I certainly read in elementary school, but I was not strong reader (I have talked about this in other blog posts) so to plow through a book like I did with this one was unusual.
The story itself is very well written. It’s got a surprisingly complex vocabulary and syntax, but it wasn’t hard to read. Again, I’m surprised I clicked with this in elementary school knowing that I was not a great reader. However, I think that attests to the fact that the story is incredibly compelling, even if it’s not plot driven. In fact, it does a great job blending plot and character development. There’s quite a bit of suspense both within the overarching plot (will Hawk and Willow survive on their own?) and within smaller incidences (will they be able to evade the hunters they run into? will they be able to kill the cave bear and use his cave? etc.). Hawk, though, is an inquisitive boy/man (he’s a man by his tribes standards and because people didn’t live long, but he’s only 16) and he spends a good deal of time coming up with new ideas that help them survive, such a stick that helps him throw his spear much further which puts him out of harm’s way. He also invents a bow and arrows.
He observes things very closely and learns from what he observes. So when, for example, they leave their original camp because of a lack of wildlife and return a few days later he notices there is game again. He thinks to begin hunting in one smaller area and rotate through smaller surrounding areas to allow wildlife to return. Willow too has ideas and has paid close attention to what others in the tribe do, so when they need to start a fire she knows how to do it. She also creates a number of baskets and containers that help them out and thinks to line a basket with tar so they can always have a large supply of fresh water in their cave. I was pleasantly surprised that the book was not particularly sexist. Considering the era it was written in and the depictions of “primitive man” I was expecting more overt sexism. There were a couple lines that I rolled my eyes at and, sure, they had defined roles as a man and a woman, but I imagine that’s pretty true to what life was like for early humans. I was also pleased that there didn’t seem to be anything that made it seem racist. I guess that may have been because it was about a hunter-gatherer not a Native American, but at its heart this is a survival story and it made all their skills and ideas seem really cool and essential, not primitive and silly.
I will note that there is a lot of hunting and while the story is never graphic there is violence. Don’t give this to your tender-hearted animal lovers. They will not like it. Do give it to your kids who wonder about life long ago. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy, but it certainly gives you a sense of what life as a nomadic hunter-gatherer must have been like and it doesn’t flinch from showing that life would have been brutal, hard and often short. There is also a brief author’s note at the beginning that explains where an author (and anthropologist) look for information about what life was like.
The long and the short of this is, I bought my own copy to keep on my shelf so my own daughter might stumble on it when she’s older. And quite frankly, I will read this one again in the future too. If your library still has a copy hand sell it to kids who like adventure and survival stories and kids who like protagonists who are clever and curious and like to invent things.