H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: Book Review

August 11, 2022

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who isn’t fascinated by hawks and other large and lethal birds? Helen Macdonald has been all her life. Her sympathetic and understanding parents supported her obsession with hawking lessons and books, including The Goshawk by T. H. White.

In H is for Hawk, Macdonald shares the year after her beloved father, a photojournalist, dies unexpectedly. In her grief, she feels compelled to raise and train a goshawk herself. Having a vague notion that it will somehow give meaning to her life, she adopts a young hawk and names her Mabel.

She shares the joys and the terrors of raising one of these winged predators, while comparing and contrasting her experiences with those of T.H. White, perhaps best-known today as the author of The Once and Future King. The White she introduces us to is neither magical nor particularly kind. But he’s human, and he, too, was determined to train his adopted hawk.

While she doesn’t try to make the harsh realities of raising one of these birds pretty, she does make it fascinating. And her writing itself is beautiful enough to cushion the unsavory details of the goshawk’s bloody habits. But, ultimately, she understands that her fascination with the hawk, like White’s, is a coming to terms with death: the death of small animals, her father’s, and eventually her own.

Macdonald contemplates the lure of the past and the snobbish aspects of falconry and hawking. And she ultimately determines that other people are not our problem; they are, in fact, our salvation from ourselves. By becoming decent people and sharing ourselves with others, we learn what life is all about. Hawks will be hawks, and people should be people, after all.

I loved this book. This one has been my favorite of the twenty or so books I’ve read this year. Macdonald and I have little in common on the surface, but she’s so honest and clear about how she feels that I am drawn to her. Who hasn’t been through grief so intense it blocks out sanity and leaves us clinging to whatever in our lives makes sense? I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys beautiful writing. It’s not a manual on hawks or how to train them. But if you’re interested in either topic, there is plenty to keep the pages turning.

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