H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is the 22nd book I’ve read this year, towards my goal of 37. Goodreads tells me that this is 4 books behind schedule. (Thanks a lot, Goodreads) It also completes one of my Thoughts from the Back Reading Challenge tasks – read a book with a bird on the cover. Two down, five to go. Fortunately, I didn’t really set myself a schedule for the Reading Challenge.
I had heard a lot about this book before reading it. It is memoir, nature, history all rolled together and told by an excellent, descriptive writer. From childhood, Macdonald has been fascinated with the sport of falconry, both its history and the birds themselves, and in adulthood she becomes an experienced falconer. Grieving after the sudden, unexpected death of her father, she decides to throw herself into training the most difficult, fierce predator of them all, a goshawk.
H is for Hawk is the story of the training of the goshawk, Mabel. It is also the story of Macdonald working thru her grief, and finding her way again. It is also the story of the author T.H. White, best known for his books of the Arthurian Legend. White himself trained a goshawk and wrote a book about it. Macdonald entwines the two training experiences leaving the reader feeling that there was no way Macdonald’s story would be complete without White’s story as well.
I heard the author read an excerpt on a radio interview. I was left somewhat breathless. Actually reading the book never left me feeling quite that same way, but still I really enjoyed it. Macdonald herself is an introvert and somewhat of a loner, especially during this period in her life, and it feels like she is purposefully keeping the reader at arm’s length. Her writing is solid though perhaps too descriptive for some. I read it just before diving into an animal training adventure of my own, so I think it is speaking to me on that level as well as the fact that a nature and history combo is clearly a draw for me.
The history was about falconry and White, but it was also about the connection of humans to nature, and it is perhaps that aspect of the book that I loved the most.
When I trained my hawk I was having a quiet conversation, of sorts, with the deeds and works of a long-dead man (White) who was suspicious, morose, determined to despair. A man whose life disturbed me. But a man, too, who loved nature, who found it surprising, bewitching and endlessly novel. ‘A magpie flies like a frying pan!’ he could write, with the joy of discovering something new in the world. And it is that joy, that childish delight in the lives of creatures other than man, that I love most in White. He was a complicated man, and an unhappy one. But he knew also that the world was full of simple miracles.
White’s works are best known to most as the inspiration for Disney movies and Broadway musicals (Camelot). In The Sword in the Stone, Merlin teaches young Wort to understand himself and his place in the world by understanding non-human animals and their places in nature. Macdonald learned some of those same lessons herself while training Mabel, and I’m pleased she wrote this book so she could teach me, as well.