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A Kestrel for a Knave


Keenomanjaro
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Set over the course of a day in the life of Billy Casper, a young schoolboy living in an impoverished Yorkshire mining town, this novel contrasts Casper's problems at home and school with the sense of purpose and fulfilment he gets from training a young kestrel.

 

The character of Casper is well drawn and, for all his faults, it's had not to have some sympathy for him. At school he is continually told by his teachers that he's not clever enough and will never amount to anything and as such, Casper seems resigned to his fate. However, we learn how he has caught and trained a kestrel, using a stolen book to teach himself the art of falconry. Although Casper doesn't seem to recognise it himself, Hines' message of self-belief is clear and I'm sure this book will have touched a great number of readers who see a bit of Billy Casper in themselves.

 

Hines clearly has a great deal of respect for his native South Yorkshire and any fears that the book would be full of 'Grim up North' clichés are soon dispelled. In fact, it is the Yorkshire countryside and the town's proximity to nature that predominates (the mines getting only an occasional mention).

 

There are a few memorable scenes such as the 'German Bight' incident and the football match with the insanely competitive PE teacher Mr Sugden, but it's the heartbreaking ending and Billy's determination to keep going that stand out.

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I love this book! I used to teach it, and it's still in the stock cupboard, looking neglected.

The football match is a great set piece, and the ending is heartbreaking. When teachers get fed up having to be positive all the time, this is a book to remind us why it's good that times have changed. The way Billy is sidelined is tragic.

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This was read to me at school and I really enjoyed it.

 

The film version by Ken Loach is equally good.

 

I remember the scene German Bight as well. I was brought up next to a shipping station and listening to the fishing forecast here in France on Radio 4 Long Wave always keeps me in touch with home.

 

 

Phoebus

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I love this book! I used to teach it, and it's still in the stock cupboard, looking neglected.

 

Is it no longer taught? That's a shame. Like Phoebus, I also studied it at school. As a soft urban southerner, it was quite remote from my experience, but still an enjoyable book.

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This is certainly an excellent book and proof that you can have a story that is very simply told that still manages to hold great depth. Indeed, the simplicity of the narrative adds to the sense of authenticity that Keeno implies. This is not a cliched tale of the grim north but neither is it a paean to its beauties - it's the truths that emerge from clashing those two together.

 

I love the juxtaposition of Billy's harsh and hopeless life - failed by both his family and his school - with the natural world and the freedom represented by Kes, his kestrel. Nothing is overplayed or embellished in this, it is entirely naturalistic (which is why Ken Loach's no-nonsense approach in his wonderful adaptation was spot-on) right up until the perfectly judged moment of escapism when Billy goes to the cinema at the end after losing the only escape he had in the real world.

 

An unsentimental but heart-rending book.

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I love the juxtaposition of Billy's harsh and hopeless life - failed by both his family and his school - with the natural world and the freedom represented by Kes, his kestrel.

I agree, David, and not forgetting that this young boy from a very deprived background excels in an activity held as a sport for kings.

 

 

Phoebus

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not forgetting that this young boy from a very deprived background excels in an activity held as a sport for kings.

Well, it's perhaps not as straightforward as that when you consider the opening quotation from the Boke of St Albans:

 

"An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gryfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady; a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, a Musket for a Holy water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave."

 

I think you can look at that in various ways, but an interesting one is that perhaps Hines is implying a sense that we cannot truly escape our place. Maybe Billy's sense of freedom with Kes is illusory and as a 'knave' he remains doomed, which is of course how things turn out.

 

But then you could just as easily say that Billy gives the lie to such easy stereotypes and that the relationship he has with Kes is richer than any emperor might have with his eagle!

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Well, it's perhaps not as straightforward as that when you consider the opening quotation from the Boke of St Albans:

 

"An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gryfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady; a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, a Musket for a Holy water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave."

 

Admitted. There's also a play on words, the word "knave" in falconry being a male kestrel...

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Is it no longer taught?

Just in our school - it's fallen by the wayside, but as the one with the keys to the book cupboard, I refuse to throw it out. Our editions are quite dated looking, and the opening scene causes an interesting reaction when you read it to modern teenagers who have never shared a bed with a sibling and come to some very different conclusions about the older man in bed with Billy!

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