A Kestrel for a Knave
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"A Kestrel for a Knave" Summary

By Barry Hines

fiction | 176 pages | Published in 2010


Estimated read time: 6 min read

One Sentence Summary

A young boy finds solace and purpose in training a kestrel.


"A Kestrel for a Knave" is a highly acclaimed novel written by British author Barry Hines. Published in 1968, the book has gained widespread recognition for its poignant and realistic portrayal of working-class life in Northern England during the 1960s. Through the eyes of its young protagonist, the book delves into themes of poverty, education, and the power of nature. With its vivid storytelling and memorable characters, "A Kestrel for a Knave" offers a thought-provoking exploration of the struggles and triumphs of an individual against the odds.

Brief Synopsis

Set in the small mining town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, "A Kestrel for a Knave" follows the life of Billy Casper, a troubled and disadvantaged teenager. Billy lives in a working-class neighborhood with his neglectful mother and abusive, unemployed brother. He attends a local school where he has no interest in academic subjects and struggles to fit in with his classmates, often becoming the target of bullies.

One day, while wandering in the fields near his home, Billy discovers a kestrel's nest and becomes fascinated with the birds. He decides to capture and train one, which he names Kes. Billy spends hours training Kes, nurturing a deep bond with the bird. Through this experience, Billy finds solace and escape from his troubled life, as well as a sense of purpose.

However, his newfound passion for the kestrel clashes with the realities of his everyday life. Bullied at school and often neglected at home, Billy faces numerous challenges and obstacles. He struggles to find support and understanding from the adults around him, including his teachers who fail to see his potential. Despite these setbacks, Billy persists in his efforts to train Kes, finding solace and hope in the bird's presence.

Main Characters

Billy CasperThe novel's protagonist. A disadvantaged teenager from a working-class background, he struggles with neglect and abuse. He finds solace and purpose through training a kestrel named Kes.
Mrs. CasperBilly's neglectful and indifferent mother. She fails to prioritize Billy's needs and often leaves him to fend for himself.
JudBilly's older half-brother. Unemployed and prone to violence, he regularly mistreats and bullies Billy.
Mr. FarthingBilly's English teacher at school. He is detached and uninterested in his students' well-being, failing to recognize or nurture Billy's abilities.
KesThe kestrel that Billy captures and trains. Kes becomes Billy's companion and source of solace in a challenging world.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1

The novel opens with a glimpse into Billy's bleak and challenging life. He wakes up in a small, cluttered house filled with neglect and chaos. His mother is indifferent to his needs, and his half-brother Jud frequently bullies him. At school, Billy faces further struggles, encountering a disinterested teacher, Mr. Farthing, who fails to recognize his potential.

Chapter 2

Billy finds solace in the natural world, particularly in the fields near his home. One day, he stumbles upon a kestrel's nest and becomes captivated by the birds. He decides to trap one and train it, discovering a newfound sense of purpose and connection.

Chapter 3

Billy adopts the kestrel and names it Kes. He begins training the bird, spending countless hours studying, feeding, and bonding with Kes. Through this process, Billy gains a sense of control and an escape from his challenging circumstances.

Chapter 4

Billy's passion for Kes clashes with the realities of his everyday life. He faces ongoing bullying at school and struggles to connect with his teachers or find support. Despite these setbacks, Billy remains dedicated to Kes, finding solace and hope in their bond.

Chapter 5

Billy faces increasing challenges and obstacles. His brother Jud becomes more abusive and threatening, making Billy's life even more difficult. At school, Mr. Farthing continues to neglect his duties as a teacher, failing to recognize Billy's potential and dismissing his interests.

Chapter 6

Billy's dreams are shattered when Jud kills Kes. Devastated, Billy experiences a profound loss and frustration. He confronts Mr. Farthing about his lack of support, expressing his anger and disappointment. Billy resolves to break free from the cycle of neglect and poverty he has experienced thus far.

Main Events

  1. Billy finds solace and purpose through the discovery of a kestrel's nest.
  2. He adopts and names the kestrel Kes, dedicating himself to training the bird.
  3. Billy faces ongoing struggles at school, including bullying and a lack of support from his teachers.
  4. His brother Jud's abusive behavior intensifies, making Billy's home life unbearable.
  5. Mr. Farthing, Billy's teacher, fails to nurture his talents or offer any understanding.
  6. Billy's dreams are crushed when his brother kills Kes, leaving him devastated and disillusioned.

Themes and Insights

Education and Opportunity

"A Kestrel for a Knave" explores the limitations faced by working-class individuals in accessing quality education and opportunities for personal growth. Billy's school showcases a system that fails to recognize or invest in the potential of its students. The novel highlights the importance of supportive educators and the damaging effects of neglect or dismissiveness within the educational system.

Escapism and Nature

The natural world and Billy's bond with Kes serve as an escape from his troubled life. Nature provides solace and a sense of purpose that is sorely lacking elsewhere. The novel suggests that meaningful connections with the natural world can offer temporary respite and personal growth, even in the midst of challenging circumstances.

Reader's Takeaway

"A Kestrel for a Knave" is a deeply moving and thought-provoking novel that delves into themes of poverty, education, and the power of nature. Through the character of Billy Casper, it explores the struggles and triumphs of an individual against the odds. The book serves as a poignant reminder of the need for compassion, support, and recognition in the face of adversity.


Barry Hines's "A Kestrel for a Knave" remains a timeless and impactful work of literature. Its compelling portrayal of a young boy's struggle to find hope and purpose in a challenging world resonates with readers of all ages. Through its exploration of poverty, education, and the power of nature, the novel prompts important discussions about social inequality and the importance of understanding and support in fostering individual growth.

A Kestrel for a Knave FAQ

  1. What is 'A Kestrel for a Knave' about?

    A Kestrel for a Knave is a novel by Barry Hines. It tells the story of Billy Casper, a young boy living in a mining town in England, who finds solace and meaning in the training and care of a kestrel hawk.

  2. Who is the author of 'A Kestrel for a Knave'?

    The author of 'A Kestrel for a Knave' is Barry Hines, a British novelist and screenwriter.

  3. Is 'A Kestrel for a Knave' based on a true story?

    No, 'A Kestrel for a Knave' is a work of fiction written by Barry Hines.

  4. What genre does 'A Kestrel for a Knave' belong to?

    'A Kestrel for a Knave' is a coming-of-age novel belonging to the genre of literary fiction.

  5. Is 'A Kestrel for a Knave' suitable for young readers?

    While 'A Kestrel for a Knave' features a young protagonist, it has themes and language that may be more suitable for older readers, typically adolescents and adults.

  6. Are there any film adaptations of 'A Kestrel for a Knave'?

    Yes, 'A Kestrel for a Knave' was adapted into a film titled 'Kes' in 1969, directed by Ken Loach.

  7. What are some other notable works by Barry Hines?

    Barry Hines is also known for his novels 'The Blinder' and 'The Gamekeeper', as well as his screenplay for the film 'Threads'.

  8. Where can I purchase 'A Kestrel for a Knave'?

    You can purchase 'A Kestrel for a Knave' at various online retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and local bookstores.

  9. Is there a sequel to 'A Kestrel for a Knave'?

    No, 'A Kestrel for a Knave' doesn't have a direct sequel, but it remains a standalone novel.

  10. Does 'A Kestrel for a Knave' explore any significant themes?

    'A Kestrel for a Knave' explores themes of poverty, education, cruelty, escape, and the power of human-animal relationships.