Summary and book reviews of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald X
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2016, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Book Summary

Winner of the 2015 BookBrowse Nonfiction Award

Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

When Helen Macdonald's father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she'd never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk's fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White's chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself "in the hawk's wild mind to tame her" tested the limits of Macdonald's humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer's eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

II
Leaving home

Keys in pocket, hawk on fist, and off we go. Leaving the house that evening is frightening. Somewhere in my mind ropes uncoil and fall. It feels like an unmooring, as if I were an airship ascending on its maiden flight into darkness. Step¬ping over the low railings into the park I head for the thick black avenue of limes and the lamplit leaves beneath. Every¬thing seems hot and clean and dangerous and my senses are screwed to their utmost, as if someone had told me the park was full of hungry lions. Night air moves in the spaces between the trees. Moths make dusty circles about the lamps. I look down and see each pale blade of grass casts two separate shadows from the two nearest lamps, and so do I, and in the distance comes the collapsing echo of a moving train and somewhere closer a dog barks twice and there's broken glass by the path and next to it a feather from the breast of a woodpigeon judging by its size and curl. It lies upon the grass as if held...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. When Helen was young, she remembers her father telling her that 'when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient.' (p8) How is being patient important to Helen throughout this book?

  2. Helen has lost her father and is grieving. Where did you find yourself drawn to her in sympathy or empathy? Were there times when you found her less sympathetic? If yes, when?

  3. "The book you are reading is my story," Helen writes. "It is not a biography of Terence Hanbury White. But White is part of my story all the same. I have to write about him because he was there." (p.38) How does T.H. White's ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about H is for Hawk. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

Fiction or nonfiction?
I knew it was non fiction so I expected it to be a memoir. If it had been listed as fiction, I would have questioned the deep connection to her father and her self imposed exile, I think I might have found it too tedious. Since it is non fiction I ... - Windsong

H is for Hawk
I don't remember the particular quote either, but I think it expresses some hope that Helen herself will eventually see the beautiful and "right" things in the world. - juliaa

H is for Hawk
I felt her grief drove her to enter the Mabel's world because her grief was so profound. By imagining how Mabel and White's hawk Gos lived, thought, and hunted, her life rebounded, - Windsong

Helen helps Mabel pluck the pheasant as 'unconsciously as a mother helping a child with her dinner,' but then, as the hawk eats, she starts to cry. Is this a turning point, and if so, why?
The comments in this string were very helpful to me. I agree that in this passage Helen recognizes the nurturing and love of her father as she realizes Mabel is a child that she has nurtured: " A baby hawk that's just worked out who she is." And ... - joanr

How do Helen's views on White's book evolve over time? What books have you changed your mind about over the years?
I think JLPen77 says it pretty well - I like the examples given to support the thoughts. As joanp says: Maturity changes your outlook. I don't think I can improve on the above statements. At this moment I cannot recall rereading books & changing ... - marganna

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

In the end, Macdonald — as she begins to emerge from the grief that has almost consumed her — is able to reflect on larger questions, such as how and why humans imbue wild creatures with human qualities and whose version of "nature" is worth preserving. Most of all, she realizes that — her genuine and hard-won affection for Mabel notwithstanding — she needs more than a raptor counterpart to find herself truly human.   (Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

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Media Reviews

Library Journal

Overall, this unsatisfying mishmash of memoir, nature writing, and commentary might be of interest to falconers but will be of limited appeal to armchair naturalists.

Publishers Weekly

In this elegant synthesis of memoir and literary sleuthing... Macdonald describes in beautiful, thoughtful prose how she comes to terms with death in new and startling ways.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it's poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

The Sunday Times (UK)

What [Macdonald] has achieved is a very rare thing in literature—a completely realistic account of a human relationship with animal consciousness... Her training of Mabel has the suspense and tension of the here and now. You are gripped by the slightest movement, by the turn of every feather. It is a soaring performance and Mabel is the star.

The Economist

A well-wrought book, one part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world and one part literary meditation... lit with flashes of grace, a grace that sweeps down to the reader to hold her wrist tight with beautiful, terrible claws. The discovery of the season.

The Bookseller (UK)

The magnificent H is for Hawk [has] grabbed me by its talons... [it's] nature writing, but not as you know it. Astounding.

Financial Times (UK)

A dazzling piece of work: deeply affecting, utterly fascinating and blazing with love... a deeply human work shot through, like cloth of gold, with intelligence and compassion—an exemplar of the mysterious alchemy by which suffering can be transmuted into beauty. I will be surprised if a better book than H is for Hawk is published this year.

The Guardian (UK)

[Macdonald] combines a lexicographer's pleasure in words as carefully curated objects with an inventive passion for new words or for ways of releasing fresh effects from the old stock... Macdonald looks set to revive the genre.

The Daily Mail (UK)

A talon-sharp memoir that will thrill and chill you to the bone... Macdonald has just the right blend of the scientist and the poet, of observing on the one hand and feeling on the other.

Reader Reviews

Carol Ward

H is for Hawk
Loved the (1) falconry aspect and the interspersed (2) references to T. H. White's own struggles with birds of prey as well as writing. Found the (3) author's remembrances of her late father less interesting. Overall enjoyed the memoir and found ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Goshawk

In T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone (the first book in The Once and Future King series), young Arthur is transformed by his tutor, the wizard Merlyn, into a small falcon known as the merlin. In the short chapter focusing on Arthur's adventures among the raptors, he is both terrified and fascinated by the half-mad Colonel Cully, a bloodthirsty, raving goshawk. This scene, as fantastical as it might be, nevertheless illuminates some of the conventional wisdom surrounding goshawks. Macdonald quotes one falconry textbook that characterizes goshawks as developing "symptoms of passing madness." Large, bloodthirsty, impossible to understand or relate to, goshawks are mysterious creatures in Macdonald's book — and even more so in White's....

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