Helen Macdonald’s debut novel, H is for Hawk, is a marriage of genres: a natural history, a literary biography, a memoir, and a chronicle of grief. It also investigates the relationship between people and wild animals and takes a look at the intriguing subculture of falconry which, unbeknownst to me, is still alive and well all over the world.
When Macdonald, a historian and lecturer at Cambridge University, learns of her father’s sudden death (he was a beloved photojournalist), she withdraws from society and dives back into the great pastime and passion of her youth: falconry. This time around, however, it will not be with just any bird – she will train and hunt with the wildest of the wild – a goshawk – a bird she thought of as “things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets.”
While training her new goshawk named Mabel, Macdonald turns to one of the books that shaped her understanding of the responsibilities and craft of the falconer: The Goshawk by T. H. White, himself an amateur falconer and keeper of goshawks. In T. H. White’s most famous book The Sword in the Stone (the first book in The Once and Future King series), the wizard Merlyn, as tutor, transforms a young Arthur into a small falcon known as the merlin. In the short chapter focusing on Arthur’s adventures among the beasts of prey, he is both frightened and fascinated by the half-mad Colonel Cully, a bloodthirsty, raving goshawk. This scene 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.
Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel helps her grieve, initially allowing Macdonald to pretend she too is wild and therefore not subject to human emotions. “While the steps were familiar,” Macdonald writes, “the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.” As she comes to spend more time with Mabel, though, she realizes that humans’ experience of loss — and their ability to reflect on it — is far more complicated than that of the hawk, which is really a plain and simple instrument of death. Macdonald aptly sums up bereavement and loss: “It happens to everyone, but you feel it alone.” She grows to discover that she needs more than a raptor counterpart to find herself truly human: “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 4. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, April 4 for a discussion of H is for Hawk at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.