H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald

Not to brag too much, but I had packed up this book for my vacation reading before I found out that I would be sharing it with President Obama. If one of his post-presidency projects is starting a national book club, let me use this moment to go ahead and offer up my services. (Seriously: I’m waiting by the phone). In the meantime, I hope that the President enjoyed this engrossing, warm, smart memoir as much as I did.

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H is for Hawk is a bit of a genre-blend (familiar readers will know how much that excited me), combining memoir, nature writing, and even literary criticism. In this book, Macdonald recounts her life in the immediate aftermath of her father’s death and traces through her grieving process. Macdonald had been training and hunting with hawks for much of her life (and had devoured literature on the subject even as a small child), but she had never trained a goshawk, a bird with a reputation for being particularly wild. As she grappled with the shock of her father’s sudden passing, Macdonald found herself drawn to the goshawk as almost a premonition, something she simply knew she had to begin. As she writes:

“When I was small I’d loved falconry’s historical glamour. I treasured it in the same way children treasure the hope that they might be like the children in books: secretly magical, part of some deeper, mysterious world that makes them something out of the ordinary. But that was a long time ago. I did not feel like that any more. I was not training a hawk because I wanted to feel special […] I was training the hawk to make it all disappear.”

Macdonald’s book isn’t a simple retelling of her life, though. She weaves her narrative of grief and healing amidst beautiful nature writing. Her descriptions of the time spent with the hawk are crisp and fervent, wild and melancholy. The reader is granted entrance to a perspective both alien and instinctual as Macdonald brings her hawk into the narrative. Mabel the Goshawk (for it is falconry tradition to name your bird something fatuous and silly; it is believed you won’t be successful if you name your bird something too overweening, like Striker or Killer) is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve encountered in literature, and I do think it’s fair to call her a character in this story. Macdonald relays her personality accurately: her confusion, her sense of play, and even her occasional blood lust. As a reader, I felt tuned in to Mabel without ever feeling like I was reading a caricature, a cartoon animal with humanity pasted upon her. The relationship between Macdonald and Mabel is at times funny and touching and at times heartbreaking, and it is the heartbeat of the story.

Another element I wasn’t expecting from this book is Macdonald’s engagement with a piece of literature. She recalls encountering T. H. White’s The Goshawk as a child and being confused by its difference to her other books, instructional manuals and grandiloquent histories of falconry and hawk training. The Goshawk, instead, is the memoir of a complicated and troubled man, working through his demons in the course of (unsuccessfully) training a goshawk. While this angered Macdonald as a child, the book came back to her in her grieving, and H is for Hawk stays in conversation with The Goshawk throughout, adding further depth to this narrative. I wasn’t expecting this part of the book, and it was a wonderful surprise.

I was swept up by this book, by the pulse of the natural world that beats throughout, by the rawness of Macdonald’s emotions, by the connection that spanned between her and another soul that sought solace in the wilderness. It’s certainly sad, but it’s also hopeful and intelligent, and presidential approval or not, I highly recommend it.

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