[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
Before he invented the kingdom of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander sought out Jewish heroes on the plains of antebellum Kansas. Published in 1958, six years before the debut of the Prydain series, Border Hawk: August Bondi was the second release from Covenant Books, an ambitious series offering “stories of Jewish men and women to inspire and instruct young people.” Based on Bondi’s own accounts, this fictionalized biography of the Vienna-born Kansas abolitionist was also Alexander’s first book for children. The frequent exclusion of Border Hawk from the author’s later biographical sketches makes sense, perhaps, for marketing reasons, but the book doesn’t deserve its obscurity. For those who know Lloyd Alexander only as a writer of fantasy, this little-known work is a pleasant surprise.
The opening pages of Border Hawk are packed with action, all of it unfolding in tight, economical prose. It’s 1848, and student revolutionaries face off with soldiers on the streets of imperial Vienna:
The drums beat wildly, the bugles blew the piercing notes of the attack. Anshl heard the heavy boots of the advancing soldiers. Desperately he tried to raise himself. Before he could move, he felt a bayonet rip into his back. Another soldier struck him on the head and shoulders with a musket butt. Amid the clouds of smoke hanging over the square, the students struggled against the battalion. Above the rattle of musket fire rose the screams of the wounded and the shouts of the battling students. The attack passed over Anshl. In spite of his pain, he managed to drag Hershel to a side street. Carefully he rested the wounded boy against a doorstep. He tore shirts into bandages and tried to revive his friend.
Nothing in that passage is stylistically remarkable, but its pacing is perfect. Never an indulgent writer, Alexander demonstrates how to put readers in the moment: by letting them imagine the details for themselves.
After 18-year-old Anshl Bondi trades Vienna for New Orleans and changes his name to August, he seeks excitement on a riverboat—until the sight of a slave auction makes him turn away, “sick at heart,” as he remembers Jewish history and his own fights in the streets of Vienna. Later, when he accidentally strikes a defenseless slave, August is overcome with shame at having been proud of such trifles as his riverboat uniform. Resolving to leave the South and join the fight against slavery in Kansas, the young immigrant understands that “true adventure would come from doing something he could believe in and fight for.” In August Bondi, Lloyd Alexander discovers his typical hero.
Alexander’s lifelong focus on ethical quandaries is evident in Border Hawk, but here he specifically roots them in Jewish experience. One subplot focuses on a shopkeeper named Theo Weiner, who wrestles with his conscience, unsure of whether his desire to fight alongside the Free Staters outweighs his obligation to obey the law. A run-in with pro-slavery ruffians who are also antisemitic helps Theo make up his mind. “In the ghetto we feared the law,” he tells August. “But there is no ghetto here. A man makes his own life. In the ghetto we kept our mouths shut and suffered without a word. I left Warsaw. Now I have left the ghetto that was in my own heart.”
In Border Hawk, violence is a sad necessity, but Alexander doesn’t lose sight of its limits. When August and his Jewish friends become gunrunners, the author does not disapprove, but after they join John Brown in his Kansas campaigns, Border Hawk distinguishes between necessary violence and coldblooded vengeance. As Alexander presents him, John Brown is a frightening and ominous figure. When August meets the charismatic, wild-eyed abolitionist, he gets a glimpse of the horrors to come:
August stayed a few minutes longer, then took his leave of the Brown family. Slowly he rode back toward the creek. The image of Old Brown, like a patriarch of the Scriptures surrounded by his sons, remained in August’s mind. Now that he had met the Old Man face to face, August could not really be sure of what he had seen. A rock? An eagle? Yes, but something more. A sense of terrible destruction that was to come, that would consume all, even the Old Man himself.
Seething and tragic, John Brown prefigures Justin, the obsessive revolutionary of the Westmark series. In fact, Border Hawk is full of embryonic character types that recur in Alexander’s novels. In the few lines of speech she’s given, August’s wife, Henrietta, shows herself to be strong-willed and independent, a typical Alexander heroine. Learning new skills as he wanders and matures, August himself resembles Taran of Prydain; like Theo of Westmark, he continuously rethinks the moral calculus of war. Early in Border Hawk, the young hero pries loose the cobblestones of a Vienna street and piles them up to build the first student barricade. Alexander was clearly impressed by August Bondi’s ingenuity: he used that scene again, 26 years later, in the climax of the final Westmark novel.
With its moonlight shootouts and desperate battles between Free Staters and pro-slavery ruffians, Border Hawk is an engaging book, and August Bondi’s involvement in the tumultuous history of Kansas reminds young readers that we live in the events of our times rather than in front of them. Adults who grew up reading Lloyd Alexander will find Border Hawk a revelation, not only because the author handles non-mythological subject matter so deftly, but because the book shows that the heroes of Prydain and Westmark have Jewish-American roots.