Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: autobiography, natural history
Length: 288 pages
Publisher: Grove Press
Date Released: March 3, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer, Helen had never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk, but in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.
Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.
There’s an entire alphabet in this book. If H is for Hawk, then D is for Depression, F is for Father, G is for Grief. And M is for Merlin, S is for Sword, as in The Sword in the Stone, and W is for White, as in T.H. White.
On March 20, 2007, the author’s father, the press photographer Alisdair MacDonald, died suddenly of a heart attack while on assignment. H is for Hawk is the author’s journey from nearly unutterable grief to eventual healing. A healing birthed by the most unusual midwife – the care and training and partnership of a goshawk named Mabel.
It’s in the first wrenching depths of her grief that the author finds herself haunted by the work of an earlier writer. T.H. White, the celebrated creator of The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, wrote a book titled The Goshawk about his rather inept and completely untutored training of a goshawk he named Gos, showing a surprising lack of imagination for an author whose most famous work is a feast of re-imagining.
Unlike White, Macdonald actually knows what she is doing. At least with the goshawk. She is a professional falconer, and has worked with birds of prey all of her adult life. But she never took on the training of a goshawk, a particularly fierce and vicious predator.
This story is not twee, nor is it cute like Watership Down. Fortunately, it is also not like so many works of the 20th century where real animals are celebrated and protected, but ultimately die in the end. (Think of Ring of Bright Water or even earlier works like Bambi and Old Yeller).
Training and caring for Mabel is a full-time job. And in the depths of her grief the author devotes all of her time to the bird, neglecting her job and the company of people. Mabel gives her purpose and keeps her separated from the human world that both hurt her and can heal her. She just isn’t ready to let it.
Reality Rating A-: Sometimes, I write mostly about the book. Sometimes, I write more about the ways in which the book made me think. There are rare times when I mostly write about the way the book made me feel.
Fair warning, this is one of the latter.
I chose this book for a couple of reasons. I also lost my father to a sudden heart attack. While that was over 20 years ago now, at the time it happened I was about the age that the author was at that time, and my father was also about the age that her father was at the time. There is one phone call and suddenly the world is a different and darker place. You get past but you don’t really get over.
Her journey took her much further into the black than mine did, and her method of finding her way back was very different, but the starting place was not dissimilar. I wanted to read how she managed, and sometimes didn’t.
The other “hook” for me was T.H. White. I did not know much about him as a person, but The Once and Future King, which includes The Sword in the Stone, was one of my favorite books in my teens. I saw the Disney movie made from Sword when I was a child.
(The final section of The Once and Future King is titled The Candle in the Wind. Thinking back, the title does resonate with both versions of Elton John’s song.)
White was a very troubled man. He suffered from what we would certainly call child abuse when he was very young, and was severely bullied and beaten in school. He was also a homosexual at a time when any practice was illegal, and was also a sado-masochist, a predilection which had the potential to cause him even more trouble than he already had. He was never a happy man.
While in The Goshawk he shows himself to be an inept falconer, he also attributes to the bird all sorts of motives that are much more human than avian. Even to a non-birder, his treatment of the hawk just sounds wrong.
At the same time, Macdonald’s analysis of the way that White turned his experience into Merlin in The Sword in the Stone really resonates. I will never see The Once and Future King the same way again.
In the interweaving of Macdonald’s multiple stories – her grief and basically lack of coping, resulting in a spiral into clinical depression – her reread and analysis of White’s Goshawk – and her ultimate re-emergence into life, there is also a celebration of the wild places that can be found in the most seemingly cultivated places, and her love and caring for the beautiful and fierce Mabel that ultimately sing out.
This is the story of one woman’s journey through the dark and dangerous places of her own heart – and her emergence into the beauty and wonder that surrounds her.
And Mabel is absolutely awesome.