Title: “H is for Hawk”
Author: Helen Macdonald
Year Of Publication: 2014
Grief is a terrible thing. It’s a black hole. It consumes. And while it consumes, we grieve. To escape from this is also a terrible thing, but for different reasons. It’s terrifying to re-enter life without the thing lost. People try and they fail. This happens every day.
Others try and succeed, though not without help. Helen Macdonald is such a person. In her 2014 memoir, “H is for Hawk,” she loses her father. To cope, Macdonald, a historian with year and years of falconry experience, arranges the purchase of a goshawk–essentially the Cadillac of hawks.
It’s an alarming beautiful and powerful creature, one that isn’t trained easily. Macdonald spends the better part of the narrative recounting her experiences training the goshawk, which she names ‘Mabel.’ What results is a cross between field manual and personal rumination–on goshawks, nature, life, and death. She feeds Mabel dead chicks she keeps in her freezer and lets the hawk fly with jesses (leather straps) to accumulate her to the outside world.
The two bond. They become one. Macdonald cracks the necks of rabbits and pheasants that Mabel tracks per her biological impulses, and Mabel presents an obvious conversation piece for the outwardly withdrawn and reticent Macdonald. They’re a good pair.
As they continue to hunt, Macdonald recedes further from her friends, her job, and the industrialized world, falling for the natural world that Mabel unlocks for her. But she realizes that’s not the life she wants. That “hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks,” as she says.
By the end, she finds her way back into society, with friends and whatever new normal exists after her father has gone. She has to give Mabel away for the winter to molt, and it’s a sad goodbye, but it’s only temporary. There are more summers to be had between them.
TL;DR: “Wild,” but training hawks with someone who actually can write good prose.
Verdict: Emotional, beautifully written. “H is for Hawk” pulls the reader into Macdonald’s tragedy and gives them a reason to stay: H is for Hope, too.