H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Though she is an expert who has trained many raptors, MacDonald feels compelled to train a goshawk after her father’s death. Known to be the most difficult of all to train, the goshawk is a suitable challenge that allows her to grieve and escape from the world.

MacDonald’s father, a photojournalist, viewed the world through his camera lens. He taught Helen to be a watcher and that is what she does while training hawks.

For the first few weeks she “watches” them; she allows herself to become invisible while feeding them from gloved hands.

The next stage is “manning” the hawk. Manning the hawk means uncovering its head in public. Up to this point, the hawk wear a hood in public.

In this wildly original work of non-fiction, MacDonald also confronts her younger self and her disdain for fellow hawk-trainer and legendary author, T.H. White.

His loneliness mirrors her own though she does not appear to recognize this. As an adult, MacDonald comprehends White’s troubled soul and his loneliness.

MacDonald is an academic so much of the writing comes across an a beautifully-written academic essay. She is also a poet which explains the work’s formidable imagery: “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away.”

Since she is also historian, MacDonald often engages in interesting asides, like her discussion of the Pastoral movement that occurred in Britain in the 1930s.

Mostly, though, she shares her triumphs and failures as an austringer. Though she trains Mabel to land on her fist, inexplicably, her goshawk stops doing it consistently. MacDonald feels she has failed her hawk.

Much of this non-fiction treatise reads like feral therapy. MacDonald is afraid to let Mabel loose of the creance as she is supposed to do: “I’m convinced that Mabel will rocket away from me and disappear for ever.”

This isn’t a bond she takes lightly. During her time of grief, she has frequent angry outbursts. She finds it particularly hard to learn to trust again:

“Flying a hawk free is always scary. It is where you test these lines. And it’s not a thing that’s easy to do when you’ve lost trust in the world, and your heart is turned to dust.”

The next stage is hunting. Macdonald loses, she says, her humanity while watching Mabel hunt. Although she has been an animal lover all her life, she enjoys the hawk’s triumphs.

Ironically, Macdonald says she regains her humanity by mercifully killing the prey that Mabel would have eaten live.

Macdonald’s success in training her goshawk is punctuated by White’s unsuccessful attempts to train his.

Then, one day, the hawk inexplicably attacks Helen.

The injuries gives Helen several key realizations that are further affirmed when she speaks at her father’s memorial service.

She had been losing herself–her humanity–while training the goshawk.

What I liked best about this memoir is the honest description of  a tense human-animal relationship. The literary analyses, the historical asides, and Macdonald’s astute discussion of depression and grieving process make this work even more significant.


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