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Spotlight on: Hawkes Harbor by S.E. Hinton

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Hawkes Harbor by S.E. Hinton S.E. Hinton, Hawkes Harbor

Renowned author of juvenile fiction S.E. Hinton's first novel for "adults" (her first novel of any kind in over nine years) does not offer a positive first impression. I originally thought that Hawkes Harbor would not be likely to appeal to anyone past high school age, that it had exactly the same kind of troubled protagonist in Jamie Sommers that Hinton had been recycling for years in books like The Outsiders, Tex, Rumble Fish, and That Was Then, This Is Now.

Luckily, around page 100, it begins to take a turn for the better. When we first encounter Jamie (no relation to the Bionic Woman), he has just lost both of his parents, and his priest -- who, we learn, had promised to look after Jamie himself -- is sending him away to an orphanage with a thieving nun. Seventeen years later, Jamie is admitted to Terrace View Asylum. Hawkes Harbor then jumps back and forth between his therapy sessions and flashbacks from the intervening years, particularly his time sailing and smuggling with mate Kell, a greatly influential figure in Jamie's life.

Then we get to the good part and what turns Hawkes Harbor into an almost entirely different book: Jamie follows Kell to the titular locale Jamie meets one Grenville Hawkes, a local eccentric who will later pay for Jamie's stay at the asylum, but not before he has exacted his own price.

Despite the presence of "adult" subject matter and swear words, the first part of Hawkes Harbor feels as if Hinton is still writing for teenagers. I actually found it a struggle to get through this part because of the condescending tone. Jamie's lack of real personality also hinders the book's impact. I much preferred the company of Kell, Jamie's shipmate, on the many smuggling expeditions. Also, Grenville Hawkes is constantly surprising the reader throughout the book. The supporting characters definitely rule the day here.

As I read, the tone changed from condescending to accessible but I think that the first third of Hawkes Harbor should have been reedited to match the rest of the book, because it feels as if Hinton is practicing novel-writing without a clear idea of where she is going. Eventually, she found her way and discovered a plotline that worked within the context of Jamie's story, adding more than a little sex and violence along the way to keep our interest, but the flaws are distracting. The narration never feels like Jamie's thoughts but the author's, the practice of giving a header to every time-change quickly became annoying, and the whole thing feels more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive novel. The dramatic "redemption" ending is entirely out-of-place, though predictable given the preceding events, so I guess it works, but not really.

Hawkes Harbor is a good book, but with some more work, it could have been much better. I say wait for the paperback.

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