H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, published by Grove Press, New York, copyright 2014, 283 pages.
It was one of those nights, becoming more frequent now, when I laid wide awake at 2 AM. When this happens I reach over to the night stand, turn on the dim light, and grab whatever book or magazine I touch first. Reading usually puts me back to sleep. This time it was an old New Yorker. I started at the back to avoid those long current event articles in the front that I rarely agree with, and checked out the cartoon competition and then the book reviews. The title of the review, Rapt, Grieving With Your Goshawk, by Kathryn Schultz caught my eye–I had just finished my review and post of The Goshawk by T.H. White. The coincidence grew as I read Schultz’s review of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which itself is in part a review and commentary of T.H. White’s life and writings, including The Goshawk. It seemed like a sign. After a quick Amazon download to my Kindle, I was off and reading another hawk book and well into it by dawn’s early light.
The author was a young graduate student in the history of science at Cambridge who recently lost her father to an unexpected cardiac death. This book is a skillful weaving of three themes: her personal grieving and situational depression and eventual recovery, the acquisition and training of a goshawk named Mabel, and a commentary of the life and works of T.H. White, the earlier 20th century author who was also a falconer and naturalist, and also struggled with depression. H Is For Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction and the Costa Book of the Year prize.
Helen Macdonald’s father was a free lance photographer and former plane-spotter as a child. His lessons of patient observation and sky-watching led to her unusual and precocious interest in birds, raptors, and falconry. As a child she had already read White’s The Goshawk, Blaine’s Falconry, and all the related texts needed to master this art. Prior to her fathers death she had already trained kestrels, merlins, and peregrines and was a former falcon breeder for the United Arab Emirates.
Why train a goshawk now with her grief so fresh and raw, and why a goshawk? Its an uncommon, secretive, wild, and difficult hawk to train. Just “looking for a goshawk is like looking for grace; you don’t get to say when or how.” But its also the bird that T.H. White acquired when he sought to retreat from humankind and kindle his own feral self. She was experiencing those same impulses. As she relates the fascinating training of her young goshawk Mabel, she compares and contrasts her techniques with the love/hate relationship between White and his Gos. But as this training goes on the reader senses the author’s growing alienation with humankind and identification with the bird, and her deepening depression. The bills aren’t paid, mail and calls not returned, and human contact avoided. As a reader I felt like an observer of a train-wreck in slow motion, not sure I wanted to see how this all ended, but the compelling writing kept me going to witness the recovery.
Midway through the book there is the memorable scene when Mabel is given her freedom to fly without constraints for the first time. Remember this is a hawk bred and fledged by humans, never previously released to the wild. Helen is “practically catatonic…this is ridiculous…I don’t want to be here…Oh! And I let her go. And immediately I wish I had not. Suddenly my hawk is free”. When the hawk does not immediately return to the fist Helen is devastated, “My beating, horrified heart, and my soul feeling like water at four degrees; heavier than ice, falling to the bottom of the ocean. And suddenly she is back on the glove, I feel soaked in ice water, and I cannot believe she is not lost. I feel like White: a tyro, a fool, a beginner, an idiot.”
The first step in recovery is recognition of the illness. At some point the author disagrees with the naturalists like Muir who celebrate becoming one with nature and one with the birds. Most have a “little splinter of wildness” while coming home, having dinner, and participating in humanity. But she realizes, “I don’t have both sides. I only have wildness. And I don’t need wildness any more…Human hands are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close.” She wonderfully relates this process of repair and restoration, the role of her mother, the memorial service, her friends, professional help, and medication, eventually leading to the point of separating from her beloved Mabel during the long molting phase of spring. After all, she has her own spring revival to tend to.
I don’t believe my short review does justice to this affecting and fascinating book. Please refer to the Kathryn Schulz review in the March 9, 2014 New Yorker for a more in depth analysis, or better yet, read H Is For Hawk. You won’t be sorry.