H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
2015/ 288 pages
rating: 8.75 – literary memoir
This is a memoir, no problem with that, I enjoy an occasional memoir. But it’s also a book about training a bird, a goshawk, to be specific and I generally have little or no interest in the life sciences.
Macdonald is a journalist by trade but also a naturalist, and a research scholar at the University of Cambridge. As a child she became fascinated with hawks and her photographer father assisted and befriended her. They explored together, each with his own purposes.
So when he died rather suddenly Macdonald was devastated to the point of near madness, and decided that now was the time to actually put what she had learned in a lifetime of reading and study into actual practice. She would escape from the pain by training a goshawk. H is for Hawk is the story of that effort – and a hugely compelling and emotional effort it is to read about her journey with the goshawk while in a profoundly vulnerable state due to grieving her father.
Intertwined with the author’s own a experience is the story of the deeply troubled T. H. White, the author of The Once and Future King (1958). White also trained a goshawk but for entirely different reasons and with very different methods – ineffective, perhaps counterproductive and basically wrong in places. This story holds its own interest and the transitioning from White’s story to Macdonald’s is usually smooth and reasonable – only a couple times really intrusive.
Macdonald compares her training processes and experience to that of the lonely, frightened White. White is an interesting man and Mcdonald identified with him in some ways, I think, but she’s clear he was not in any way a father-figure – she had an excellent father whom she is grieving.
Also, of course there’s a bit about goshawks in general, their history in England, their habitat. That’s all pretty compelling stuff in itself (at least in Macdonald’s hands) so yes, I googled and googled to see photos of it all, places in England, what goshawks look like and how they fly, etc.
The best part, the part which is beyond interesting and into the realm of completely riveting, is when Macdonald is actually training, “manning” if you will, her bird. I try to imagine her patience and am lost. I almost physically ached for her. And the parts where she described running across fields to find dead pheasants or rabbits is page-turning. The book definitely reads like a novel – lots of literary devices and touches and references.
T.H. White – The Goshawk