Book review: 'H is for Hawk' takes readers through author's process of grieving, hawk training
Posted April 3, 2016
Updated April 7, 2016
"H IS FOR HAWK," by Helen Macdonald, Grove Press, $16, 322 pages (nf)
Helen Macdonald's "H is for Hawk" braids three stories: Macdonald recovering from the death of her father, her training of a young goshawk, and a history of falconry through author T.H. White's experience. With lovely language and interesting insights into an ancient hobby, literature and British history, this book is powerful and enjoyable.
The memoir begins with Macdonald's father dying. He had taught her falconry and was a major figure in her life. She writes that her dad had been more than a father — he had also been her "friend and a partner in crime when it came to quests."
Macdonald reacts to her father's death by retreating into an animal world. She decides to train a young goshawk, the hardest species of hawk to train. The frequent tension between wild and tame traces her emotional journey, balancing a sense of animalistic survival with social humanity.
The book pairs the process of training the hawk with Macdonald's grieving process. At her highest, she is transported by the magical flight and hunt; at her lowest, she is frustrated and distraught by the savagery and yarak, or hawk bloodlust. The goshawk almost consumes Macdonald's sense of self. Only after reaching the bottom does she resurface, healed from her loss.
Throughout the book, Macdonald recounts White's experience trying (and failing) to train a goshawk. These sections provide a parallel story and added depth to the book. Just as White attempted to learn how to train a hawk using instructions from a book, Macdonald looks to White's book to guide her journey.
After trying to heal her pain by fleeing to the wild, Macdonald comes to herself. She reflects on how it is with other people that one finds purpose, and offers and receives solace. Her experience is similar to many people’s responses to grief by going into the wilderness or being secluded from the world for a time in order to find oneself. By the end of the book, the threads come together and inspire the reader to try falconry, or at least to go bird-watching.
The book contains some discussion of White's sexual orientation and how it affected his personal life and work, but no sexual situations are included. There is no objectionable language. There are instances of animal hunting, including descriptions of feeding the hawk with dead animals and of the hawk hunting small prey and eating them, but Macdonald doesn't emphasize the gore in her descriptions.
Brigham Wilson is getting an MBA at MIT Sloan. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.