Book Review | H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Beauty and tragedy and death and renewal and nature…

H is for Hawk is a beautiful memoir by naturalist Helen Macdonald. Ten points to Benjamin, who recommended it to me. I read it as part of my UK reading challenge, and while it’s not directly about the English, it is a snippet-sized view of England and the English through Macdonald’s eyes and experience as she both faces the unexpected death of her father and the training of a rare and beautiful goshawk. A story about bereavement, it wasn’t what I was expecting. But then, I’m not sure that what I was expecting was what it should have been.

It seems like every time I pick up a “serious” book I find the themes of death, dying and family. Our lives are not our own but are wrapped up in those we are close to. And these relationships–and the loss of them to death–provides resonant fodder for writers. Or maybe writing is the way we cope with the gap, the hole, that is left. Therapy.

In that sense, it is a view into someone’s heart. We hear the story, we hear their story, and then we hear our own stories, our own feelings, our own loss and potential loss, and vicariously, we are feeling and understanding the loss of death, the passing of family, loved ones.

H is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s memoir of surviving the passing of her father. An amateur/hobbyist hawker from her childhood, she buys a baby goshawk and begins the process of training it, while also working through the grieving process. This is a less than a satisfactory plot summary, but the plot is not really the point, so much as what happens to us all when we are making other plans. The hawk is Helen Macdonald’s “other plans,” and there are moments when it isn’t clear that Helen is in control, or if the hawk and she are both codependent. As she trains the hawk, she begins to turn inward, hiding from the world, from the community, from the rest of her family. H is for Hawk becomes as much a meditation on nature as on Macdonald’s father and what it means to move on after death.

I didn’t much want to read a book about bereavement when I started H is for Hawk. But I found something I liked as I read, and I couldn’t stop. I found myself recalling classics of man and nature from my childhood: Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, the Black Stallion, My Side of the Mountain, and others. In this last, 15-year old Sam Gribley escapes to the wild, capturing and training Frightful, a peregrine falcon, and it was easy to be reminded of this story as I read Helen’s story.

And yet, this is no romance, no city-dweller escaping to nature to find herself. Helen *does* begin to find her bearings again, but it’s not the way she thinks, and it’s not through escaping society.

Interestingly, Helen interweaves T.H. White’s writings, life, and experience training, or trying to train, a goshawk as he worked through his own…issues. It’s an unexpected, and well-done, angle, and the contra-position of White’s story against hers set H is for Hawk at greater relief. While I’ve not read a lot of T.H. White, I am familiar with him, especially his Once and Future King, and the comparison made Macdonald’s story all the more interesting.

Helen writes beautifully, but it is her truth that I think gave the story its power. She communicates her experience with clarity and insight; and it’s beautiful, a story that carries catharsis as only the written word can.

H is for Hawk Book Cover H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald
Grove Press
March 3, 2015

The instant New York Times bestseller and award-winning sensation, Helen Macdonald's story of adopting and raising one of nature's most vicious predators has soared into the hearts of millions of readers worldwide. Fierce and feral, her goshawk Mabel's temperament mirrors Helen's own state of grief after her father's death, and together raptor and human "discover the pain and beauty of being alive" (People). H Is for Hawk is a genre-defying debut from one of our most unique and transcendent voices.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.