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“I am writing of the West, not of the Indians primarily, and certainly not of the romantic West which the best-selling authors have exploited.”(Page 154) This line comes from D’Arcy McNickle, the author of many short stories and poems based on understanding different cultures including the Native American culture. In one of his poems called “The Hawk Is Hungry”, McNickle tries to explain the difference in the rural and urban life, and the forces that control them.
Born in the year 1904, D’Arcy McNickle grew up in the area of the Flathead Reservation in Montana until his parents divorced in 1914. He was then separated from his mother and was sent to an Indian boarding school. McNickle went on to study English literature and creative writing at the University of Montana and at Oxford University in England. His story “The Hawk is Hungry” is set in the 1930s in eastern Montana. This region consists of mostly dry, flat grassland with scattered hills, and harsh seasons. The winters are bitterly cold, while the summer temperatures can reach above 100 °F. Because of the vast amount of land available, for a brief period in the early 1900s, they attracted a lot of people because of the Homestead Act. Homestead Act allowed people to gain title to public land if they lived on it for five years and improved it. Because of the past that McNickle had experienced in Montana, he sets an illusional mood where everything would conflict with the reality or the real world.
“The Hawk Is Hungry” is about a guy living in the rural areas of Montana and trying to convince his younger sister, Anne Elizabeth, to move to his ranch in Montana and live with him. The only problem he had was that he wasn’t sure himself if West was the right place to live. “My sister had come to spend the summer at my Montana ranch. It was a long ten years since I had seen her, I was fond of her, and I was hoping to keep her in the West. I wasn’t subtle about it. I was bragging shamelessly about our advantages, I was ready to lie if need be.” (Page 155) This guy was ready to lie to make the West seem like a perfect world to live in for his younger sister, the only problem was that most of the things that he did and would mention to his younger sister, just appeared to be an idea or an illusion, in another words, a dream of what he expected the West to be.
Here are a few lines that he tried to tell Anne to convince her that West is indeed a good place to live in, “You laugh when you hear mention of the ‘great open spaces’, but the fact remains, this is the place to live”, “I know–splendid air–open-hearted people”, “We are really a free people out here. The American spirit is making its last stand here. Every man is his master. He believes in himself. We don’t know anything about tenement life, ward politics, the factory system–all that….” (Page 155) With all those descriptions of the West, he tried his best to convince his sister Anne that West is a great place to live, at least better than the urban society or at least she lived, somewhere in Connecticut. But all these explanations did not help him to convince Anne to move to West and live with him, so what he tried to do was to set a good example. He then spoke of two sisters, Brown sisters, Matilda and Beth. This is why he used the Brown sisters as an example, “I had counted on the Browns to help me persuade Anne about the freedom of the West.
They, like Anne, had been teaching school in one of those New York beehives; they had wearied of it, as her letters told me she had; and they had struck for freedom, coming here and taking up a homestead.” (Page 156) He then continued “And there was the time they were taken in by a rustic wag and on his advice had tried to by ‘side-hill cattle,’ the kind with legs shorter on one side to make side-hill grazing more convenient.”(Page 156-157) After a while, they decided to pay a visit to Brown sisters and that was the time that Anne’s brother starts to truly see the real world because he paid more attention to every detail surrounding him to make sure that he sees everything that he had told his sister, but after his visit to the Browns, he finds out that he was wrong. “The Brown place looked especially forlorn that morning. I had been there before, but I must admit that I had not noticed details.
I suppose I was always full of thoughts about their independence of spirit and their making their own fate. Their house was built of slab siding, refuse which most mills either burn or throw away, and the roof of a single slope was covered with tarpaper. Beside the house there was a shed for the chickens, which but for being smaller was equal to their own living quarters. The chicken house was shaded by a growth of wild elderberry bushes, around the roots of which the hens dusted themselves in holes worn by their bodies. There was a shed of the cow, a plain cow, no fantastic “side-hill” beast.” (Page 157) In this part of the story, the narrator sounds almost surprised or in a bit of shock to see all he had thought of the West, was not so true. “I could see now, realistically, that what had been left behind was more real, better understood, and better loved, than what they had come to.” (Page 159) He even realized that how unhappy the sisters were with their situation, “Three of the dreariest years mortals ever endured.
If you called it half a century it wouldn’t seem wrong” said the younger sister Matilda. This proved that life wasn’t as good and easy as what the narrator thought in the West and that it was much harder and tougher. The sisters then went on explaining how hard their life really is, “Mr. Buck, you’ve seen very little of us–and you’ve never seen us after a broiling day when we’ve come in broken-backed from carrying water to our garden–you’ve never seen me get raving mad when that murderous chicken hawk carries off one of our precious few hens….” (Page 158) Molly the hen was really one of the main symbols in this story. They said that Molly was “A creature of sense”, “You could call it insight”, and that “She never makes a false move!” (Page 160) Molly for the sisters and Buck was more a symbol of being free, smart, surviving in different conditions, and standing out. But all that was changed when she was attacked by a hungry hawk. “From my position at the table I had the best view of the yard and had seen that first stir of alarm.
Matilda must have seen it almost as soon as I, for she reacted before the others. Her breath caught on a half-uttered sound. The shadow streaked across the yard, was lost, then drifted back again from a different angle. It came to a pause. The hawk was directly overhead, descending. Matilda reared up, on the point of screaming, but no sound coming. Her face, when I glanced up, was intense with pain. It chilled me.”(Page 161) Molly was finally caught by the hungry hawk and was gone. The sisters were in a state of shock, Buck and Anne also couldn’t interpret what really happened in front of their eyes.
But then Maltilda, angry of what happened to Molly, tried to explain, “Damnation! It was more than that! You make us seem like two old maids talking to ourselves. I say no to that and damn the notion! That hen was an idea. The idea of personal integrity. Standing alone and damn the consequences. Men try to live like that. Few do. Very few. The hen did. Did you see her? And this hawk, he’s the witless brute force that insults us all. The best of us! We put ourselves above the beast, but when the hawk is hungry he comes for us. And what are we then?” (Page 162)