Allan W. Eckert Essay - Critical Essays

Eckert, Allan W.


Allan W. Eckert 1931–

American novelist, nonfiction writer, playwright, short story writer, journalist, and scriptwriter.

Eckert's works of American and natural history merge fact and fiction to explore the human desire to control and understand the environment. Eckert combines thorough research and technical detail with literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness and narrative devices to create a type of writing which has been labeled "documentary fiction." He has established a reputation as a writer who makes his subject, no matter how specialized, both palatable and entertaining to his nonscientist or nonhistorian readers.

Eckert's topics often reflect his appreciation of nature and his strong concern with environmental protection. His early books dealt with the extinction of the Great Auk and the once-plentiful passenger pigeon and are underscored, as are all Eckert's books of this type, by his recognition of the natural dignity of animals and his indignation with human carelessness regarding them. These works are written in an informal style, and show his familiarity with the species he describes, due perhaps to his experiences as a trapper, a reporter on outdoor subjects, and a scriptwriter for the television series "Wild Kingdom." Eckert often centers on regional events as the basis for his works. He takes a journalistic approach with these books, relying on interviews, diaries, historical conversations and other records to compose their structures, and using what he has termed "hidden dialogue" to provide the major thrust of the story. Eckert uses this invented dialogue as an aid to describe historical events and to keep the story line running smoothly.

In 1967 Eckert published The Frontiersmen, the first in his open-ended series called "The Winning of America," which also includes his novels The Wilderness Empire, The Conquerors, and The Wilderness War. These works describe the westward movement of the pioneers and explorers as they gained control of the North American continent. They earned for Eckert comparisons with seminal historians Plutarch and Francis Parkman.

With Incident at Hawk's Hill, Eckert synthesized his interests in nature and frontier life to create his most critically acclaimed work. Based on an actual episode from Canadian history, the novel was originally released as an adult title, but found favor among young people and critics of children's literature, who voted it a Newbery Honor Book in 1972. It was criticized for its violence, but most critics agree that its effect is uncommonly powerful. Recently Eckert has ventured into the area of science fiction, but obvious characterizations and overuse of dialogue have kept his attempt, The HAB Theory, from universal acclaim. It is generally agreed that Eckert is at his best when he concentrates on nonfictional subjects, since his uncanny grasp of time, place, and fact, as well as his ability to translate his excitement about his subject into print, makes a painless, appealing way for his readers to learn while enjoying a well-told story. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Marian Sorenson

The end of the great auk as a member of the world's wildlife is told [in "The Great Auk"] as a novel. In a powerful and poetic flow [Mr. Eckert] traces the brief life of a single great auk from its hatching on Edley Island in the North Atlantic until its fatal return two years later to the same island, where it and its mate represent the last two great auks on earth.

It is a compelling drama which includes rich descriptions of the teeming fish and animal life of the North Atlantic. As the story unfolds, even though the reader knows the inevitable end, he retains a hopeless hope that this noble bird will somehow escape destruction by an uncaring world. But the inescapable fact is always present and the author, in a beautifully written book, personally involves the reader in the tragedy of the extinction of a whole species.

Marian Sorenson, "Noble Bird," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1963 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), October 31, 1963, p. 7.

Oscar A. Bouise

What begins as a routine account of the migration to winter quarters of a flock of birds—unusual birds, it is true—develops into a tense tale of the struggle of the great auks against the forces which unwittingly combined to annihilate them as a species. The author calls [The Great Auk] a novel and rightly so: a more powerful or tragic plot can hardly be matched by anything conceived in the mind of a great writer. (p. 269)

Eckert is masterful when describing incidents and places, some purely imaginative…. [His] descriptions are vivid, palpable, intensely real. Amazingly he seems most effective when seeing and assessing these things through the eyes and minds of his "characters," a tribute to his imaginative genius.

This reviewer confesses that he approached the task of reading The Great Auk with little or no relish: just a bird story, he mused. However, he finished it with sad joy: sadness for the fate of those brave, non-flying birds …, and joy because of the artistic experience which the reading of this novel brought. (p. 270)

Oscar A. Bouise, "Fiction: 'The Great Auk'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1963, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 23, No. 15, November 1, 1963, pp. 269-70.

[The] so-called objective reporter reveals [in A Time of Terror] that really his heart throbs like a bass drum, as he lovingly renders documentary scenes of human triumph and failure during catastrophe. Eckert does have the grace to admit that some of this book is documentary fiction. The reader is likely to guess that anyway when he finds himself privy to the inmost thoughts of people who die the next moment…. This story of hundreds of individual deaths and rescues during fire and flood is drastically readable.

"Non-Fiction: 'A Time of Terror'," in Virginia Kirkus' Service, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, January 15, 1965, p. 86.

Robert H. Donahugh

[Mr. Eckert] has skillfully woven newspaper and eyewitness accounts into an exceptionally exciting narrative [A Time of Terror] that moves as rapidly as the events of the disaster it describes. The horror and the suffering are relieved by descriptions of courage and inventiveness that sing of the triumph of humanity. Not since Walter Lord's A Night to Remember … has a calamitous event been so spellbindingly recreated. Purists may object to Mr. Eckert's liberal use of invented dialogue and stream-of-consciousness, but the result is a vividness and immediacy that will capture and hold readers of all ages.

Robert H. Donahugh, "New Books Appraised: 'A Time of Terror'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, March 15, 1965; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1965 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 90, No. 6, March 15, 1965, p. 1319.

Robert Murphy

There has probably never been in all the world a species of bird more numerous than the passenger pigion, which moved about over the eastern half of the North American continent in the 19th century in flocks so enormous that they darkened the sun….

[How] did it happen that such a stupendous multitude was brought down?

The question is pretty well answered in this nature-novel by Allan Eckert ["The Silent Sky"]…. It is so well provided with details of the birds' existence, ingeniously invented incidents to point up man's extraordinary and wasteful brutality, and the birds' inability to adapt to it, that the melancholy story is made plain. One follows it with a sort of horrified fascination….

Mr. Eckert is not on firm ground when he endows the pigeons with a sense of smell and an ability to see in the dark. He is uncomfortably anthropomorphic on occasion, and his predators, who also have their place in the ecological scheme of things, are described as wicked and bloodthirsty villains. It is doubtful that his style will evoke many poetic comparisons, but the book will give the reader an insight into a bit of our history that he may not have known—or of which he possessed only a fragmentary knowledge.

Robert Murphy, "And Then There Was None," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 31, 1965, p. 54.

David Bannerman

[In] The Silent Sky we are given, in highly sentimental prose, yet another account of the last days of the Passenger Pigeon. The author prefers to describe his book as "a novel." It is written from the point of view of the Pigeons and what they endured; Mr. Eckert allows his feelings full play when describing what he imagines to have taken place; nor does he spare his readers when painting afresh the lives of persecution the birds endured….

For those who like to be harrowed by tales of untold misery … there is plenty to satisfy them in Mr. Eckert's book. But for those who prefer facts to fiction, there are other less imaginative accounts available of what we can only describe as terrible...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Ralph C. Baxter

To those who critically read either of Allan W. Eckert's other naturalist books, "The Great Auk" or "The Silent Sky," the technical problems of his "Wild Season" are no surprises. Both "Great Auk" and "Silent Sky," in spite of their difficulties, at least make one pause in awe and sorrow before lonely museum displays of the auk and passenger pigeon—now extinct.

Eckert experienced several essential literary problems in both "Great Auk" and "Silent Sky": how to tell the stories of auks and pigeons to adult humans; how to inform about bird behavior and yet create "novel-story" quality; how to make a conversation message both subtle and compelling. Eckert didn't completely solve these problems in...

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Linda R. Dries

[In Wild Season] Eckert uses the same technique, a fictional approach, as that used in his two previous nature books, The Great Auk (1963) and The Silent Sky (1965). In this book he avoids the pitfall of expressing too much sympathy for the more helpless creatures and too little for the predators…. One of the finest sections of the book is Eckert's presentation of a few days of a bull snake's life and its tragic death at the hands of the worst predator—man. The book is recommended … as a nonscientific but accurate and very readable account of the ecology of a typical wildlife habitat.

Linda R. Dries, "The Book Review: 'Wild Season'," in Library...

(The entire section is 136 words.)

Walter Havighurst

Using the voluminous Draper manuscripts and other first-hand accounts of the winning of the West, Eckert has followed the frontiersmen from the first wondering exploration of the Ohio valley in the 1770's to the crushing of the final Indian resistance in the War of 1812. ["The Frontiersmen"] is a panoramic frontier history, crammed with incident….

Mr. Eckert makes one feel the lure of this frontier, though his writing can lapse into remarks like "The aura of fear in Springfield and the surrounding country bloomed again."

In this book, the frontier contest is recorded in a day-to-day account, sometimes a dozen lines to a day, occasionally a dozen pages. Moving within a few pages...

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Robert Berkvist

Nature study is full of pitfalls, Disney only knows, and it is a pleasure to report that Allan W. Eckert has avoided them all in this beautiful book about the Louisiana bayou country ["Bayou Backwaters"].

The bayou region, which has thus far escaped "development," is a richly populated stronghold of plant and animal life. Mr. Eckert builds up an evocative word-portrait of the area by letting us observe a number of its inhabitants on their daily rounds through its woods and waters….

[Thanks to Mr. Eckert's] eye for detail, his sense of the rhythms of the natural world, his feeling for its beauty and balance, "Bayou Backwaters" is a celebration of life in all its forms.


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Jane Manthorne

[Allan W. Eckert] pays homage to a serpent of North Carolina [in The King Snake]. Physiological details … are included, but greatest emphasis is accorded the snake's repeated battles for survival. The author's skill is in evoking such interest and compassion in the reader that he actually identifies himself with the serpent. In a complete reversal of roles the reader hopes that the snake will outwit his human captor.

Jane Manthorne, "The Ways of Wildlife," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1968 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLIV, No. 5, October, 1968, p. 578.

Oak Lake in Mr. Eckert's Wild Season is the...

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Jane Manthorne

In one of the strangest chapters of American history a boy who had long played at being an Indian became one. Marmaduke Van Swearingen, captured with his younger brother by a band of Shawnee warriors, traded his white identity for his brother's release and became totally—in fealty, in life style, in consuming hatred for the white man—an Indian…. With a precise fidelity to the facts of history, [Allan W. Eckert] has constructed a documentary novel [Blue Jacket: War Chief of the Shawnees]—terse, brooding in its revelation of white man's greed.

Jane Manthorne, "Red, Black, and White," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1969 by The Horn Book, Inc.,...

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James Nelson Goodsell

Allan Eckert's brand of history takes some getting used to. It reads very like fiction, but is actually fact dressed up in the style of a novel. There's an intimacy in the effort which is often lacking in today's historical writing. Yet the approach poses problems.

For example, he leans heavily on dialogue to tell his story, making ample use of whatever historical conversation remains in archives but also adopting the practice of what he terms "hidden dialogue"—putting quotation marks around material not initially recorded as dialogue but reported as having been said or heard or thought after an event.

It is a practice that historians frown upon. Mr. Eckert defends it on the...

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Irwin Polishook

Eckert's description [in "Wilderness Empire"] of the often bloody encounters between the competing forces of empire, with the Indians taking different sides at different times, offers exciting reading. However, the author's use of extrapolated "dialogue" in an effort to make his book more lively and the absence of interpretation limit the value of the account. (pp. 82-3)

Irwin Polishook, "In Brief: America," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 16, 1969, pp. 82-3.

[In Search of a Whale] is a well-written action narrative with plenty of excitement to...

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James Nelson Goodsell

["The Conquerors"] is a fascinating, albeit sometimes bloodthirsty and violent [tale]. If anything, the use of "hidden dialogue" enhances the story and one puts the book down feeling that this concession to the novel has not hurt the story one whit. In fact, history might have a wider audience if others would take Eckert's license without, of course, losing sight of [Francis] Parkman's call for "faithfulness to the truth of history." That's the rub, however, for few modern writers have been able to do what Eckert does so ably.

James Nelson Goodsell, "In Living History: How the Wilderness Was Won," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The...

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Martin Levin

Mr. Eckert's folk fable of a small boy who can talk to furred and feathered friends ["Incident at Hawk's Hill"] is part of an apocrypha that has intrigued chroniclers before Romulus met Remus. It is still intriguing if you are willing to check your skepticism at the prologue, and pad along behind a 6-year-old named Ben…. Ben's interlude concerns his life with a female badger. A natural historian …, Mr. Eckert makes this formidable beast seem appealing, without recourse to undue anthropomorphism. Ben is also a winsome protagonist—and the two make elemental music together.

Martin Levin, "Reader's Report: 'Incident at Hawk's Hill'," in The New York Times Book Review...

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Jennifer Farley Smith

["Incident at Hawk's Hill" is] disturbing….

The descriptions of animal habits and habitats are fascinating, and the lesson that only the fittest survive is clearly drawn—but author Eckert has done his job too well. The scenes of gratuitous and explicit violence—such as the bloody death battles between animals—end by turning the reader's stomach.

Perhaps the author intended to give his young readers a picture of man's ability to endure, to make a statement about the quality of will and courage, but what he has created is the stuff of terrible nightmares.

Jennifer Farley Smith, "Despair Pervades Prize Books," in The Christian Science...

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Mark Neyman

In 1778 Daniel Boone was charged with several counts of treason, involving his alleged collusion with the Shawnee Indians and the British. Eckert … has written a fascinating historical novel based on this trial…. The author has a keen sense of time and place, and has thoroughly researched what little is known about the trial.

Mark Neyman, "The Book Review: 'The Court-Martial of Daniel Boone'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, October 1, 1973; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 98, No. 17, October 1, 1973, p. 2879.

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Barton Wimble

[Tecumseh!] treats in chronological order the career of Tecumseh, the Indian leader who tried in vain to weld all Indian tribes into one nation. The speeches are mostly declamatory and easy to project to a large audience. Except for the devotees and practitioners of Outdoor Drama, I feel it holds little general theatrical interest.

Barton Wimble, "Theater: 'Tecumseh!'" in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, August, 1974; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company): copyright © 1974 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 99, No. 14, August, 1974, p. 1978.

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Peter Gardner

[The Owls of North America, a] magnificent reference book, surely the most comprehensive and handsome to date, covers all the owls known to inhabit the continent north of Mexico…. Orderly, straightforward, and detailed, the text conveys all the essential data known to ornithology in respect to these economically valuable and still mysterious birds.

Peter Gardner, "Naturalist's Bookshelf: 'The Owls of North America'," in Audubon (copyright © 1974 by the National Audubon Society), Vol. 76, No. 6, November, 1974, p. 105.

Eckert, a respected writer on American frontier history, makes a distinctly unpropitious maiden voyage...

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Brad Knickerbocker

First, you take a bit from each of the disaster movies made in recent years, add a few current events (oil embargo, space exploration, the third world), and stir with liberal dollops of "Chariot of the Gods" type phenomena. Mix in a little soap opera, place it all on Noah's Ark afloat somewhere near the Bermuda Triangle and infest it with the "Andromeda Strain" and you have the essence of Allan Eckert's new thriller ["The HAB Theory"].

The essence and flavor, but not the exact recipe. To give that away would be to spoil a very good yarn that has just enough sci-fi to make it fantastic, but enough plausibility that it leaves the reader feeling—no, believing—that income taxes, presidential...

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