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H is for Hawk

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As a child, Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer. She learned the arcane terminology and read all the classic books, including T.H. White's tortured masterpiece, "The Goshawk," which describes White's struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest.

When her father dies and she is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.

Destined to be a classic of nature writing, "H is for Hawk" is a record of a spiritual journey - an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald's struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk's taming and her own untaming. At the same time, it's a kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant and troubled novelist T. H. White, best known for "The Once and Future King." It's a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.

300 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2014

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About the author

Helen Macdonald

66 books1,420 followers
Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, historian, illustrator and naturalist. She's worked as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, as a professional falconer, and in raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia. She is an affiliate of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. She lives in Suffolk, UK.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 9,361 reviews
Profile Image for Greg.
1,106 reviews1,809 followers
October 17, 2014
H is for Hawk

This is Mabel.

She is a goshawk.

I didn’t know what a goshawk was before I started to read this book. I wasn’t actually sure I knew what a hawk was either.

“Seriously, Greg? You are forty years old and you don’t know what a hawk is?”

Well, sort of. I knew that it is a bird and that it is a predatory animal. I had no idea what one looked like. If you showed me pictures of some birds and told me to pick out the hawk and you had some falcons and maybe some non-bald eagles I wouldn’t have known which one it is.

And never mind if you told me that there were different hawks how to pick out a goshawk.

But I’m not really alone here, the author early on in the book tells how people are always claiming that they have seen a goshawk, because wikipedia or some other source tells them they are big, and they see a sparrowhawks and think that they must be goshawks because they see that they are big.

This is the way Macdonald compares the two (it’s from the books description on goodreads)

'In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier, and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they're the birdwatchers' dark grail.’

Sounds kind of interesting, and she is going to train one of these birds, which are about 2 feet in length to sit on her arm and then fly out to hunt pheasants, rabbits, squirrels and other small prey.

To give you (and myself) of how big the hawk is, because it’s tough to tell in the pictures of Mabel just by herself. Here are a couple of pictures of Mabel with Helen Macdonald:

(Both pictures of are Mabel, apparently goshawks can change colors through molting, and in her second year she was more snow white, than the brown of her first year.)

I never thought much about falconry before. I knew that people held birds on their arms and by some magical ability sent the bird out to hunt and then apparently the bird would return and perch on the falconers arm again.

It was kind of the same magic that people use to make carrier pigeons bring things to places, or those birds in Game of Thrones deliver messages and not just fly away and sit in a tree somewhere and do bird things.

It never dawned on me the commitment that someone would have to put in to training and living with the bird. In my head they were probably kept in some aviary and when hunting time came each falconer would pick up a bird like you’d pick up a shotgun for an arsenal and trot off for a day of hunting.

I would have never guessed that you would sit around your living room with your bird, especially if it was a kind of large bird of prey.

Training a goshawk isn’t something to be taken lightly, as this book shows both through the experiences of the author with Mabel and the parallel story of T.H. White’s doomed attempt at training a male goshawk named Gos (not so creative with the name, it makes me wonder if he ever named a cat, Cat or a dog Dog).

The book is kind of a weird mixture of how the author dealt with the sudden death of her father by ‘shunning’ the world of academia that she was a part of in favor of training a notoriously difficult species of hawk and a mini-biography of T.H. White, best known for The Once and Future King, but who also wrote a book called Goshawk that chronicled his inept failure at attempting to train the same sort of bird (he was training a male though, which is smaller than the female, and it sounds like it’s possibly slightly less aggressive).

I knew about as little more it is possible to know about a subject when it comes to T.H. White, than I did about goshawks when I started this book. I knew that he was the author of The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn. I knew he was British. And I thought he was probably someone like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Because obviously anyone with initials in their name from roughly the early/middle part of the 20th century from England must be all just about the same person. Surprisingly, I was wrong about that last part, or the book never mentioned that the closeted homosexual sadist was off speaking Elvish and talking theology with the other two. Maybe Helen Macdonald left that part out.

T.H. White plays an important part in this book, but he’s not nearly as interesting to me as Mabel was. Although I did learn that he was really fucked up in the head from having to hide who he was a screwed up childhood where it was quite possible that his parents would fight over him and threaten to kill the young T.H. White and the other spouse in fits of rage.

As I keep harping, I didn’t know anything about goshawks. Or hawks. And I really don’t think much of birds. They are fascinating to watch in my mom’s bird feeder when I’m visiting her. But I never thought too much of them. Different birds species had different dispositions. Blue Jays seemed like aggressive assholes when it came to the bird feeder. Some birds would allow other birds to eat alongside them and other little birds would flap their wings a lot to scare off any other birds that showed up when they were eating.

I never really thought of birds as really connecting with a person though. I figured there are some birds like parrots that just are ok with people and one person is the same as any other one to them.

The idea that they would form a connection. Or that you could play with a bird:

or that they had a fairly wide variety of emotions that could be read from the way they kept their feathers and facial expression was kind of a shock. I never thought of birds as having facial expressions before.

(The above picture is Mabel playing with a paper telescope (a rolled up magazine, this is a game that she apparently loved, and she would look very happy and make happy noises when the game was going on. It most involved looking through the paper telescope at each other and making noises through it. The descriptions of how happy Mabel was playing this game gave me a big old smile and were some of my favorite bits of the books).

The book chronicles the first year that Macdonald has Mabel. It goes from training to being able to let Mabel fly without a tether and hunt. The book wraps up with their first spring together when hawks molt. At this point she has to turn over Mabel at an aviary for the season and it sounds like start from scratch with re-training her again when she has regrown her feathers.

She never mentioned in the book if the hawks had any memory from season to season, or even if they don’t remember particular people if they remember people in general and the surroundings they had been in, or if it is a whole process again of not just training the hawk to fly and return to you, but also to see that everything around them isn’t a novel threat.

I feel like I’ve written a lot and not said a whole lot.

I really enjoyed this book, and it was one of those books that took me longer to read than it should have, but it was because I was enjoying reading just small bits of it at a time.

I’ve been reading so much fiction lately that has been leaving me unimpressed and this book charmed me so much I’m wondering if I should take a break from fiction and try to read more narrative non-fiction about topics that I know nothing about but which maybe I’d find fascinating with the right author to guide me into the world.

Karen asked me earlier if this was like Gerald Durrell and I had said no, but that’s just because the zaniness isn’t there, but both authors have a deep compassion for the animals in their lives and do an excellent job at giving the animals their due on the page.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,284 reviews119k followers
June 19, 2022
The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.
Helen MacDonald had suffered a great loss. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote, Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Perhaps the same might be applied to grieving. I know for myself, during an acute period of grieving I was practically unable to speak for well over a month, probably not a typical experience. MacDonald’s reaction was just a wee bit more unusual than mine. She decided to train a goshawk.

Helen MacDonald and friend - from The Daily Mail

The loss of a person, whether through death, distance, or alienation, can bring about a significant crisis of identity. In MacDonald’s case, she had to lose her self, to an almost pathological degree, in order to find a way forward with her life. H is for Hawk is her tale of that journey. Of course, being a Cambridge-educated writer and naturalist, research fellow at Jesus College of Cambridge, and research scholar with the Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy, she brought a fair bit of writerly and intellectual heft to the task.
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.
Hope may be a thing with feathers, but in MacDonald’s case, it was also a thing with a rapier beak, death-dealing claws and a penchant for killing. MacDonald named her Mabel. She takes us along on her year-long struggle to master both her hawk and her grief.

MacDonald had been very close with her father, well-known, award-winning news photographer, Alisdair MacDonald. It was he who had introduced her to hawking as a child. Training a hawk was her way of connecting to her father.

Helen MacDonald with dad, Alisdair MacDonald - from Suffolk Magazine

And then she added another dimension to this experience. There are four primary threads here. The first is MacDonald’s ongoing struggle to train Mabel. The second is her family history with her father. The third is her emotional, existential struggle to find a passage through her grief to the light. The fourth is her consideration of TH White.

T.H. White and friend - from Anendlessbanquet.com

Terence Hanbury White gained considerable renown for writing The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, and more. But he also wrote a book about his experience with falconry. MacDonald finds much in his book, The Goshawk, that touches her, reminding her of her childhood falconry bonding with dad. But she digs deeper, generating some in-depth analysis of White’s life and work. While his writing had garnered him considerable wealth and fame, White’s personal inclinations and struggles are not so well known. He had had, to put it kindly, a less than nurturing upbringing, with a particularly cold and remote father. He was gay, with sado-masochistic impulses, which was not exactly a comfy fit in the mid 20th century. MacDonald sees in his writing an expression of this inner self.
When White writes about his love for the countryside, at heart he is writing about a hope that he might be able to love himself. But the countryside wasn’t just something that was safe for White to love it was a love that was safe to write about. It took me a long time to realize how many of our classical books on animals were by gay writers who wrote of their relationships with animals in lieu of human loves of which they could not speak.
Both White and MacDonald used hawking as a way to step away from the world. She also sees an expression of White’s violent inclinations, and recognizes a bloodlust in herself as she assists Mabel in the slaughter of local fauna. In referring to a scene in which White tells of a fox being ripped to bits
In this bloody scene, one man escaped White’s revulsion: the huntsman, a red-faced, grave and gentlemanly figure who stood by the hounds and blew the mort on his hunting horn, the formal act of parting to commemorate the death of the fox. By some strange alchemy—his closeness to the pack, his expert command of them—the huntsman was not horrible. For White it was a moral magic trick, a way out of his conundrum. By skillfully training a hunting animal, by closely associating with it, by identifying with it, you might be allowed to experience all your vital, sincere desires, even your most bloodthirsty ones, in total innocence. You could be true to yourself.
This was something that appealed to White, a publicly sanctioned milieu in which he could express his bloody desires. MacDonald recognizes the feeling of bloodlust in herself, as well.

The original cover of The Goshawk

We are treated to a bit of falconry history, consideration being given to the class and gender elements.
I saw those nineteenth century falconers were projecting onto their hawks all the male qualities they thought threatened by modern life; wildness, power, virility, independence, and strength. By identifying with their hawks as they trained them, they could introject, or repossess, those qualities. At the same time they could exercise their power by ‘civilising’ a wild and primitive creature. Masculinity and conquest; two imperial myths for the price of one.
The book is filled not only with her emotional struggle to recover, but with some breath-taking nature writing.
The bare field we’d flown the hawk upon is covered in gossamer, millions of shining threads combed downwind across every inch of soil. Lit by the sinking sun the quivering silk runs like light on water all the way to my feet. It is a thing of unearthly beauty, the work of a million tiny spiders searching for new homes. Each had spun a charged silken thread out into the air to pull it from its hatch-place, ascending like intrepid hot-air balloonists to drift and disperse and fall.
Does being in nature offer a salve to human suffering? Or does it reveal more of who we really are? MacDonald obviously survived her trial by feather with her personality, her core, intact. It will not feel entirely clear as you read this that she will. MacDonald is gloriously adept at bringing you into her experience, leading you to wonder the things she wonders, to feel the pain of her struggle. H is for Hawk is a magnificent achievement, taking us along with the author on her dark road, but offering glimpses of glory, of growth and understanding, while teaching us a bit about something most of us have never encountered, and giving us an expanded appreciation for one of the most beloved authors of the 20th Century. If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading H is for Hawk (I know there are some of you out there), I cannot urge you more vociferously to snatch off your hoods, fly to your bookstore and pounce on a copy before they are all gone. You will find in this book a very satisfying feast.

This review first posted – 10/14/16

Published – 7/31/14

PS - Lena Headey, the actress who plays queen Circei Lannister on The Game of Thrones bought the film rights to the book in April 2015. I do not know if the project has progressed to a development stage.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

H is for Hawk has won a claw full of prizes and recognition
-----2014 – Samuel Johnson Prize (now the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction) winner
-----2014 – Costa Book of the Year winner
-----2014 – Duff Cooper Prize – shortlist
-----2015 – Thwaites Wainwright Prize – longlist
-----2015 – Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction - shortlist

Items of interest
-----The New Yorker - March 9, 2015 - Rapt - by Kathryn Schultz
-----Radio interview - WBUR in Boston – 11:16
-----National Geographic - July 25, 2017 - Why This Young Hawk Thinks It’s an Eagle - By Sarah Gibbens - An interesting piece about a red-tail hawk going through an unusual upbringing
-----Literary Hub - August 25, 2020 - Helen Macdonald: The Things I Tell Myself When I’m Writing About Nature

-----MacDonald talk at 5 x 15 - 16:18
-----Macdonald with Mary Karr at 92nd Street Y - 1:17:51
-----MacDonald on BBC News Meet the Author - 3:04
----- Helen at a bookstore in DC - 58:25 – excellent – her talk is for the first 30 minutes - Politics and Prose is the site
-----Helen reads TH White
-----The entire film, The Goshawk, based on TH White’s book
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews861 followers
October 6, 2015
A is for Ascendant
Prose to sweep you away

B is for Birds
With a passion for prey

C is for Cambridge
She’s one of their scholars

D is for Dinero
Nice royalty dollars

E is for Elegiac
So sad when her dad died

F is for Flying
Bird and soul, side by side

G is for Grateful
Susan, you pointed the way

H is for Hawk
A great book, I must say

OK, you get the idea. This one is beautifully written, scholarly, a bit sad, and ultimately uplifting. It’s been quite a success, too, both at the bookstores and with critics. Oh, and just so you know, our daughter used to request A is for Annabelle on a regular basis. That’s all the explanation you need for my lead-in.

Macdonald structured the book very cleverly. It was part nature writing (lyrical and literary), part memoir (detailing both grief and good humor), and part biography (with T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, as the subject). The nature writing had to do with her experience training a goshawk, a particularly challenging breed known for its large size, hunting skills, and cussedness. She is a naturalist and research scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. She’s also a talented writer. I had a good feeling about the prose when she described her state of mind on the very first page: “I felt odd: overtired, overwrought, unpleasantly like my brain had been removed and my skull stuffed with something like microwaved aluminium foil, dinted, charred and shorting with sparks.” And with the added “i” in aluminium, I knew it would be English English, unalloyed, full stop.

Helen must have been an unusual girl. As an eight-year-old, she would explore antiquarian bookstores with her father seeking out and devouring books on falconry. Many of the volumes were centuries old. She seemed to inherit her obsessive behavior from her father who, as a lad during WWII, would hang around for hours just outside airfields making detailed notes on all the different planes. Young Helen somehow bought in to the long European tradition of country gentlemen flying their birds. Years later, after her father died without warning, she hoped to escape her grief by immersing herself fully into training a young goshawk she named Mabel. (Not exactly the scariest of appellations, is it?) She did a great job going into the cultural history and the applied science of falconry, in general, and of goshawks specifically. Though she might have been tempted to soft pedal the bloody bits, she disclosed it all fully. In fact, she made a point of reminding us (and herself, as narrator) that a goshawk is a wild animal that defies anthropomorphism. Early in Mabel’s training she noted this:
”Everything about the hawk is tuned and turned to hunt and kill. Yesterday I discovered that when I suck air through my teeth and make a squeaking noise like an injured rabbit, all the tendons in her toes instantaneously contract, driving her talons into the glove with terrible, crushing force. This killing grip is an old, deep pattern in her brain, an innate response that hasn't yet found the stimulus meant to release it. Because other sounds provoke it: door hinges, squealing brakes, bicycles with unoiled wheels -- and on the second afternoon, Joan Sutherland singing an aria on the radio. Ow. I laughed out loud at that. Stimulus: opera. Response: kill.

While I’m on the topic of killing machines, I might as well highlight one of the best advantages a hawk has:
”Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird. What is she seeing: I wonder, and my brain does backflips trying to imagine it, because I can't. I have three different receptor-sensitivities in my eyes: red green and blue. Hawks, like other birds, have four. This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precision that she can see with fierce clarity of things I can't possibly resolve from the generalised blur.”

Macdonald was strong on other aspects of her hobby, too. She was honest in analyzing herself and about how Mabel fit into the angst-ridden rebuilding process. Metaphors came naturally from piecemeal improvements and untethered flight. Helen and her hawk were often portrayed as one in the same, with the former’s powers of observation drawing the parallels close.

I mentioned the mini-bio within the book earlier. To me, it was a key component in rounding it out. White’s story was included because he had written a memoir called The Goshawk that Macdonald had read as a girl. She said that he was far from being an expert. In fact, he often did the exact wrong things in attempting to tame and train Gos (the name he gave his hawk). But his book was more than just a flawed “how-to” book. Macdonald was keen to dig into White’s motivations and the reasons for his book’s other more literary and philosophical elements. She discovered that he had a particularly unhappy boyhood, that he was constantly challenging himself to confront his intense fears, and that his homosexuality was viewed at that time as a kind of mental illness. It was interesting to read what Macdonald discovered. She made ties to his early life, to his famous book about Arthurian legend, to a would-be sadistic streak, and to his attempts to train Gos.

If there is any weakness in H is for Hawk, it may be in her descriptions of nature. To me, they didn’t wear well. Maybe if my vocabulary included more East Anglian flora, I’d think differently. This is a small ding, though, in an otherwise well-paced and well-constructed book. Four stars, coruscating like the sun-lit feathers on Mabel’s light, powerful frame.
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,693 followers
February 4, 2019
Before starting in on my review, I took a quick look at what my fellow Goodreaders thought. I don’t always do that, but I was really curious this time. I am thinking I am in the minority in my feelings about this one. Which is all good - I just didn’t care for it.

Usually when reading non-fiction, even if I don’t know the subject matter, I can usually get into it. In fact, I think it is the sign of a great non-fiction book when an author can take a random subject and make any reader care about it. With H is for Hawk, this did not happen. In fact, at no point did I find myself thinking it was getting interesting. It just seemed like a lecture, albeit a somewhat flowery and poetic lecture, on raising a goshawk.

Another issue I had was that a good portion of the book, at least half, if not more, was just a book report of The Goshawk T.H. White (author of The Once and Future King). I thought this seemed kind of odd – if I wanted to read that book, I would have. If she wanted to reference it from time to time, okay! But, instead, there were frequent (and in my opinion, not very smooth) transitions over to discussions about his book and experiences with raising a Goshawk. Apparently, he did a bad job of it so it seemed like the author was saying, “here’s more bad info about hawk raising from T. H. White – but isn’t it cool how it relates to The Sword In The Stone!”

Lastly, the author just seemed uncomfortable the entire book. I listened to the audio, which is narrated by her, and she just sounded iffy the whole time. I am not sure I can think of a better way to explain it. I suppose it is like if we are reading a love story and instead of the uncomfortable courtship just being at the beginning, it lasts through the whole thing. And, in the end, the main characters still seem as uncomfortable with each other as they did in the first scene. At all times it felt like she was two seconds away from a nervous breakdown over the goshawk – it just felt weird.

As mentioned, this opinion does not seem to mesh with that of the majority of Goodreaders. So, you may want to take my review with a grain of salt as this book might be right up your alley! But, if you had the same experience, let me know because I am happy to find out it isn’t just me – especially when the book is one that I hear a lot about and that keeps popping up in my feed.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,668 followers
July 27, 2016
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’.
Here’s another word: raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey’. From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere meaning ‘seize’. Rob. Seize.

Here’s another word: Captivating. H is for Hawk stole me, holding me captive with its madness and love. Part claustrophobic memoir of grief, part luminous tribute to the sport of falconry, Helen Macdonald’s book is brilliant and tense. It is a story of fury and grace, recounted in pulsing, poetic language.

Helen’s father, a famous Fleet Street photographer, dies unexpectedly and Helen, a historian, poet, and experienced falconer, tumbles into the abyss. Retreating from the world, she seizes on the one thing she believes will keep her from being swallowed by grief: she will train a goshawk.

Goshawks are the Velociraptors of the raptor world, a hawk of the genus Accipter, not to be confused with its far more approachable and trainable cousin the falcon, of the genus Falco. Macdonald’s Czech-German goshawk, whom she purchases on a Scottish quayside for £800, is "a griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary". The bird appears as a primordial creature, an ancient, disappeared thing rising from the half-life of history: "the lucency of her pale, round eyes… the waxy, yellow skin about her Bakelite-black beak… half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass".

Macdonald names the goshawk Mabel, from the Latin amabilis, meaning "lovable" or "dear”. This is perhaps a hope that Macdonald projects onto the goshawk, for there is always a current of tension and violence running between woman and raptor; Macdonald never takes for granted that this creature who lives in her home and perches on her wrist is built for murder.

Training a goshawk is a pressure cooker of isolation and suppressed emotion. The bird is hyper-sensitive to disturbances in its force field and in the early days Macdonald lives like a monk—barely eating or sleeping. She forgets she is human as she works to enter Mabel’s psyche and earn her trust. In this way, she shuts down her human mourning and becomes something feral. She feeds Mabel corpses of tiny birds. Gradually, she reenters the world, Mabel on her wrist. Raptor and woman learn to navigate the outside together, each wholly dependent on the other for cues and sustenance, one emotional, the other flesh.

H is for Hawk seduces the reader with the peculiar lexicon of falconry
As a child I’d cleaved to falconry’s disconcertingly complex vocabulary. In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the female so they are called tiercels, from the Latin tertius, for third. Young birds are eyasses, older birds passagers, adult-trapped birds haggards. Half-trained hawks fly on a long line called a creance. Hawks don’t wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate they mute. When they shake themselves they rouse. On and on it goes in a dizzying panoply of terms of precision.

Macdonald herself has the soul of a poet and uses language to a lyrical, gorgeous degree in her book. Upon bringing Mabel home for the first time, she tells us the bird fills “the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” Or a field is "washed pewter with frost". Pages of this beautiful wording fill the memoir. And strikingly, so does a strain of literary thriller, a masterful touch that lifts the narrative sharply from Macdonald’s heavy grief. Each foray the pair makes outside is fraught, first with fear—how will Mabel respond the hurly-burly of modern life—then, as the raptor is allowed to fly with increasing liberty, there is escape, violence, death. Macdonald snaps the necks of the rabbits that Mabel attacks; she pockets the pheasants that Mabel poaches. She watches with her heart in her throat as Mabel flies free, away from her, and realizes she has transferred all her hope and madness into this raw, fierce, creature.

Paralleling Macdonald and Mabel’s journey is the story of the British writer TH White, best known for The Once and Future King, his epic retelling of the Arthurian legend. White was also a falconer and wrote of his experiences trying to train a goshawk. His tribulations with Gos become something of a metaphor for his troubled life. Macdonald recounts the abuse and neglect he suffered at the hands of his parents, the depravity of his boarding school classmates, the cruel repression of his homosexuality, and his struggles as a writer. Macdonald seems to use the sadness of White’s life as a way to cope with her own, as well as a cautionary tale of how not to build a relationship with a goshawk.

At her father’s memorial, many months after his death, Macdonald has a crystalline epiphany: “…human hands have other hands to hold; they shouldn't be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.” There are many turning points and milestones in the training of Mabel, but this is the moment when we see a human animal transform. Balancing between the dreamlike world of falconry and the prosaic demands of home, job, and relationships, she regains her footing.

As Macdonald so beautifully states, the “archeology of grief is not ordered.” There is no formula for surviving the worst the world can conjure. We each struggle our way through the morass. Helen Macdonald found her redemption in the keen, wild soul of goshawk.

Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews319 followers
November 11, 2015
I certainly would not want to dissuade anyone from reading H is for Hawk, Cambridge professor Helen Macdonald's moving memoir of coping with the loss of her photojournalist father. Her twin academic disciplines of English and ornithology (specifically, falconry) provide the source of her occasionally gorgeous prose as she recounts her attempt at raising a goshawk. If she'd focused more on herself, her birding, and her subsequent descent into near-madness, this would've been a solid four-star read for me. There's no denying this woman is utterly fascinating, and her story (embellished with swirly, soaring poetics) is breathtaking.

So why only three stars? I'm not sure why Ms. Macdonald felt compelled to parallel her story with author TH White's, but each time she wheeled out his life story (which included his own very inexpert attempts at goshawkery), it served as a needless, soporific distraction from her own fascinating story. I understand her love for TH White. After all, it was his own 1951 memoir The Goshawk that fueled her lifelong obsession with hawks and falcons. Did she need to relate his story, though, in every single chapter? My contention is: no way. Her life, I'm sure, is plenty bookworthy on its own without having to pad it with TH White's.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,610 followers
August 24, 2015
This is gorgeous nature writing and it is also a graceful memoir about bereavement. Helen Macdonald has managed to blend the two genres beautifully.

When Helen's father died, her grief was so great that she decided to adopt a goshawk. Helen had loved hawks since childhood and had studied falconry, but this was her first time trying to train a goshawk.

In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecoats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier, and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they're the birdwatchers' dark grail. You might spend a week in a forest full of gosses and never see one, just traces of their presence.

If you have ever lost a loved one, you know that grief can cause you to do strange things. Helen became obsessed with her goshawk, spending hours with it and avoiding other humans.

What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later.

While training her hawk, Helen also did a lot of reading about falconry, and especially appreciated a book by T.H. White called The Goshawk. (White is famous for writing The Once and Future King.) White's experience gave her courage to train her goshawk, and she learned from some of his mistakes. I had given little thought to hawks before reading Helen's memoir, but now I am fascinated by them.

I would highly recommend this memoir to anyone who appreciates beautiful nature writing.

Favorite Quotes
"For so long I'd been living in libraries and college rooms, frowning at screens, marking essays, chasing down academic references. This was a different kind of hunt. Here I was a different animal. Have you ever watched a deer walking out from cover? They step, stop, and stay, motionless, nose to the air, looking and smelling. A nervous twitch might run down their flanks. And then, reassured that all is safe, they ankle their way out of the brush to graze. That morning, I felt like the deer."

"I put White's book on the shelves, make myself a cup of tea. I'm in a contemplative mood. I'd brought the hawk into my world and then I pretended I lived in hers. Now it feels different: we share our lives happily in all their separation. I look down at my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she'd been fractious with hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I'd pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I'd thought I'd lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she'd helped mend, not make."
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,396 reviews7,278 followers
February 6, 2019
This is probably a decent book and several of my smarty-farty friends have read it, but we all know I'm a moron and every time it is spammed recommended to me on my feed by the powers that be here at Goodreads I can only picture this . . . .

^^^^^Now that book I would totally read.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,394 followers
June 16, 2015
"The archeology of grief is not ordered."

Helen Macdonald’s book-length nonfiction is so many things at once: a eulogy, an elegy, a biography, a memoir, a training manual, a journey. It is a conversation about death, and community. It is so filled with passion and pain that one reads, breath bated, to see which will crush the other. This book is only partly about a hawk, despite the title. It records the author’s journey of a few years, starting with the unexpected death of her father, through the purchase and training of a hawk, to a new place of understanding about what and who humans are and what we need to live well.

The author looks closely at the life and writings of another vulnerable person, T.H. White, to express sorrow and a kind of sympathy with his derangements. She learns the origins of his extraordinary flights of fancy in literature, tracing over the sores of his upbringing until we see clearly the agonies of his confused psychopathy. White was a hawker, but a hawker one might quote to show how not to train a hawk. Macdonald loathed his book The Goshawk as a child. When she gets her own hawk after the death of her father, she reads it again. This time she discovers White’s pain--seeing, feeling, tracing it until it is as clear as her own.

Macdonald shares one of the best descriptions of bereavement that I have ever encountered (italics are hers):
"Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try. ‘Imagine,’ I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, ‘imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them, All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it’s like’ I finished my little speech in triumph, convinced that I’d hit upon the perfect way to explain how it felt. I was puzzled by the pitying, horrified faces, because it didn’t strike me at all that an example that put my friends’ families in rooms and had them beaten might carry the tang of total lunacy…

I’d dreamed of hawks again. I started dreaming of hawks all the time. Here’s another word: raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey’. From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere, meaning ‘seize.’ Rob. Seize."
Hawks apparently have a shamanic tradition of being able to cross borders that humans cannot and "were seen as messengers between this world and the next."

The author trains a bird of prey, a falcon called Mabel. Mabel is a predator; she is all about death, violent death. The wildness of the bird seeps into the author’s consciousness, and her perceptions become acute. Macdonald is recovering from a loss, and her bond with the reptilian raptor Mabel underscores her warm-blooded need for love and her bond with the human community. This book is the author working through grief and terror and want and coming out naked and vulnerable on the other side.

The language Macdonald employs in this memoir is as extraordinary and ingenious as her laying out such diverse topics as death, hawking, T.H. White, and history as interlocking pieces. She holds us rapt as she defines her grief. The words she chooses make us hypersensitive to differences in shade, angle, meaning: "Goshawks in the air are a complicated grey colour. Not slate grey, nor pigeon grey. But a kind of raincloud grey…" Or this: "I was…grey, loose-spun wool on an aching set of bones." Or this: "I felt like I was holding the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle." Her meanings are exquisitely clear.

Macdonald was born a hawker. We are all born with something innate but dormant until awakened by opportunity. Fortunately Macdonald was able to find and exercise her passion because she liked to read. It reminds me of teachers we may have had that spark an interest in something that feels as natural to us as breathing, and as necessary. Macdonald discusses six books that formed her consciousness about nature, makes us realize once again that a seed spilled on tilled ground can yield the most amazing things. It breaks my heart a little to think that every child probably has some thing in them that would burst into flame with the right tinder. Not all of us find it, early or ever.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,509 reviews2,511 followers
April 12, 2016
In an original blend of memoir, biography and nature writing, Macdonald reveals how raising Mabel the goshawk helped her heal after her father’s sudden death. Throughout, Macdonald compares her own falconry experience to that of T.H. White, who, in the 1930s, was a lonely schoolteacher at Stowe – and a closeted homosexual with sadistic tendencies. Macdonald recognizes the ways in which, for White, too, flying a hawk was a means of exploring one’s own wild depths and testing the links between self and nature.

If this was only a nature book, it would be a classic. Yet it is also a profound meditation on grief and recovery. H is for Helen, her hawk, and a haphazard healing process. “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.” This wonderful book (a beautiful physical object, too) – ranks as one of my favorites of 2014.

(H is for Hawk went head-to-head with The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, another of the year’s best memoirs, and won the year’s Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Biography Award.)

See my full review at The Bookbag.

Related read: Otter Country by Miriam Darlington contains a similar mixture of personal anecdote, biographical information, and enthusiasm for a favorite animal.
Profile Image for Britta Böhler.
Author 8 books1,838 followers
July 2, 2019
Praised by many but not a book for me. Should have known, though. Celebrating the caging/drilling of animals always makes me cringe; why you would want to 'train' (quite the euphemism, by the way) a wild bird for your own pleasure is simply beyond me. It just seems archaic and cruel. And the writing didn't appeal to me either (why use only one adjective when you can add five more?).
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,852 reviews35k followers
January 4, 2015
"Breeding goshhawks isn't for the faint-hearted."

"Human hands are for holding other hands. They are not for breaking the necks of rabbits, pulling loops of viscera out of necks out onto leaf-litter while the hawk dips her head to drink blood from her quarry's chest cavity" ....

Falconry is not pet keeping. We learn just how time consuming it must be-- --the dedication -the passion it takes to even appreciate the depths of ...'the sport'...'the art'....'the meditation'.

Helen Macdonald is also a writer - a poet - with a deep love for nature. With the authors extraordinary talents she has written something rarer than rare. The writing itself will take your breathe away.

After the loss of Helen's father --a very deep loss --she says:

"I thought that to heal my hurt, I should flee to the wild. It is what people did. The nature books I'd read told me so. So many had been quests inspired by grief or sadness".

We take a journey with Helen --while she is healing.
Along the way --she tells us not only 'her' story ---training her Goshawk she names *Mabel* -- the many details involved -and emotions she personally goes through ---but she tells us 'why' its important to include storytelling about the author T. H. White.
A lonely man -complicated -unhappy - with suppressed homosexual desire.

As a reader --your curiosity grows. Your thoughts may change from time to time. I've even asked myself --where do you draw the line between an obsession and passion?

I found myself curious to learn more --
1) I spent an hour watching utubes on Falconry ---(beautiful photos from Nigel Hawkins)
2) I spent at least an hour in discussion with my husband with over this book. He plans to read it next.
3) I read more about T. H. White. "The Once and Future King" has raving reviews. I'm now interested in reading his Arthurian Fantasy novel.
4) I'm suggesting our local book club read this book together. Much can be discussed... (death, loss, healing, Goshawks, T.H. White, how adults leave impressions on children, personal growth, the value of balance with solitude in nature with a busy every day life)

I sit here with MY BIRDS --(Phil, Jill, & Lil) -- I/we want to than THE AUTHOR --GROVE ATLANTIC & Netgalley for making this available for me to read.

Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,525 reviews1,771 followers
March 29, 2020
"An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, and a Saker for a Knight; a Merlin for a lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, and a Kestrel for a Knave"

Eventually reading Helen MacDonald's memoir I began to slowly recall A Kestrel for a Knave, otherwise known as Kes, which will need no further comment for any survivor of the UK education system, but assuming the presence of survivors of other systems of schooling it is a story about a much put upon and occasionally battered child who trains up a kestrel from chick to full grown bird of prey using old falconry books.

Macdonald's book led me to revisit it in my mind. What I see now is a story of a small weak child replicating the violence and oppression he experiences on to an even smaller weaker creature forcing it into strict parameters to control its behaviour to a standard deemed acceptable by old falconry books. Well he's a kid from a northern single parent family so about as knavish as you can get. Macdonald is higher up the social scale so her bird of choice is the Goshawk, a bigger bird of prey that became extinct in Britain due to the unloving attention of gamekeepers keen to preserve flocks of game birds for their employers to kill with their friends instead. However an immigrant population of Goshawks is being built up in Britain due to the work of hobby falconers who found that it was cheap enough to buy in foreign Goshawks as pairs and to release one and train the other, for this to become established as an anarchist wildlife reintroduction project.

Anyhow, Macdonald's book is a memoir about grief. While To the Lighthouse was Virgina Woolf's literary response to the loss of her mother in childhood,H is for Hawk deals with Macdonald's loss of her father when she was already an adult. Her father died, as did mine, in St.Thomas' Hospital in London (which is not saying much, it's a big, busy place, there are a hundred or so deaths there every year). Twisting in her loss she looks to build a substitute connection with something if not someone and to return to her childhood obsession with birds of prey. Enter Mable the half Czech Goshawk, bred in Northern Ireland, and in exchange for £800 cash handed over to her on a Scottish quayside. The names of birds of prey are believed to be in inverse proportion to their hunting ability, hence a bird called "Babyface Kissykins" will seize babies out of prams, while one called "Slayer" will be vegetarian.

On the one hand it is a very simple book a year in the life of a grief stricken Cambridge academic on a short term contract. On the other it explodes in to all kinds of directions: Grief, Depression, Madness, Falconry, Wildlife, the Environment, History, Politics and the invention of National identity. Intelligent, stylish, young woman is suddenly revealed naked squatting on the bough of a tree body smeared with clay and ash a collapsed nest of hair falling about her chewing on a rabbit.

She took on Mable hoping to heal herself through nature, but she ends up alienated from people not certain if she is becoming jumpy and anxious from observing her Goshawk or if she is transferring her own state of mind to the bird. She's that John Muir is wrong, nature is not universally healing, too much nature alienates us. The process of breaking a hawk, forcing it to be used to human contact is called 'manning', we see an equal reaction that too close an identification with a fundamentally non-domestic beast makes Macdonald other than conventional human, what we sometimes call mad.

In the background are Herman Göring and an English nationalism that Macdonald associates with Chalk landscapes which, idealises a never-never unchangable ye Olde England (so hawking can be seen as a timeless piece of heritage, but actually it is an imported practise from the Middle-East), and sweeps out of sight more complicated narratives (as her surname indicates identity and heritage even on a small island is a complex business) also as a parallel life Macdonald discusses T.H. White who turned to training a goshawk not to deal with grief but his own homosexuality and sadism both of which he found difficult to cope with and attributed to childhood abuse cemented by the types of abuse formalised in private schooling. White eventually turned those experiences into writing, particularly The Goshawk and The Once and Future King. The common there is Spare the rod and spoil the child - it's for your own good...but as I read I slowly recalled that a hawk is a self sufficient beast, it needs people only in a negative way - not to poison it, not to trap it, not to completely trash the environment, training a hawk, particularly if like White you make a mess of it, is a form of sadism. An interruption of the bird's behaviour so it's handler can better observe it's hunting for their own pleasure.

Along the way she observes how the hawk was viewed as feminine by Falconers and so in the nineteenth century the Goshawk has seen as moody, hysterical and vile, while in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they were perceived as shy and that you had to woo them to win their favour. And she discovers that her goshawk likes to play (p.113).

White's story becomes an ideal structural conceit - his goshawk eventually escapes to freedom, while through writing he seems to have reached an accommodation with himself (even if the erotic novel about flogging school boys goes unpublished) while Macdonald too eventually recovers to tell us her story which swoops and dives over farm land into scrubby woods. A treasure of a book.
Profile Image for Carol.
822 reviews477 followers
June 24, 2015
H is for Hawk could be H is for Hope or Heart or Home as all of these capture in some small way the essence of this beautiful book.

When Helen Macdonald’s father dies, she finds herself inconsolable in her grief. In an effort to heal her soul and regain a connection with her father she sets out to find and train a hawk. Not just any hawk, a Goshawk. And here is just one of the beauties of her story. The descriptions of her Goshawk, Mabel, are so vivid that I can see her in all her regal glory.

Interspersed with the detailed portrait of the patience and care it takes to train a hawk, Macdonald also writes a semi-biographical portrait of the author T.H. White. Some readers may find this tedious. Though it was interesting to learn more about White, who also had a penchant for hawks (though not the patience of Macdonald), I did want her to get on with her own story. Macdonald uses White’s The Goshawk as inspiration and a guide in her own training of Mabel. She seems to be better for it but we may not need to hear it all.

One reviewer thought the book had little about grieving. I can’t say I hold that opinion. We all grieve in our own way and I thought there was much about Macdonald’s process through her pain and feelings of loss. It is about the hawk but there is much about grief.

Another stated that the Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s fives stages of grief is bunk. I disagree with this also. Though we may not visit them in the order Ross outlines, and they may have evolved through time, we all go through some form of these as listed, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. You can change the wording and perhaps the definition but I am a firm believer that there are steps to healing and that we do it in our own way and in our own time.

There are many excellent reviews of H is for Hawk. Read a few and you’ll see that it is a favorite of readers.

I listened to H is for Hawk, read by the author who does justice to her own story and imparts the lushness of the language. One passage I particularly liked follows. I think she began this with a thought that nature books told her to flee to the wild…to grieve.

‘Nature in her green tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth has no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’

Now I knew this for what it was, a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild in not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

With Mabel she finds another world and a way back to her father in a communion with her mourning, a place she calls that other world.

” And that part of me had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father. His death had been so sudden. There had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it happening at all. He could only be lost. He was out there, still, somewhere out there in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead. I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of the hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d want to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.”
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews96.2k followers
February 16, 2017
I remember seeing this book on the shelves in the bookstore a year or so ago and picked it up because I thought maybe it was a rad new historical fiction about a hawk. I confess that when I initially saw it was a memoir, I put it down, uninterested. I typically am not interested in memoirs unless you are, like, Dr Salk and literally cured polio or something. But I am SO GLAD other Rioters had talked this book up so much because this is seriously one of the most beautiful books I have read in a long time. I loved learning more about falconry in general, and some of the traditions and superstitions. I loved learning that hawks with fierce names like Killer or Nazgul are thought to be shit hunters, but if you give them sweet little granny names like Opal or Mabel, they’ll be death on wings. I loved falling in love with Mabel the goshawk and learning that she likes to play. She really likes paper balls – they’re crunchy! I loved everything about this book, so much that I got a copy for my personal library.

–Kristen McQuinn

from The Best Books We Read In January 2017: http://bookriot.com/2017/02/01/riot-r...

This award-winning book is part grief memoir, part narrative about hawk-training, part biography of T.H. White. But that (admittedly odd) description doesn’t really capture the tricky, surprising, utterly gorgeous text that Macdonald has produced. And no description really could. In fact, it was a single sentence, reproduced in a New Yorker review, that convinced me I had to read it. So, in an effort to tell you about the book, here’s that sentence, in all its length and lushness and sadness and humor: “Maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.” Now you’ve read the sentence. Now I think you understand. — Derek Attig

From The Best Books We Read In March: https://bookriot.com/2015/04/01/riot-...
Profile Image for Kelly.
878 reviews3,949 followers
March 9, 2017
This review first appeared on my blog, Shoulda Coulda Woulda Books.

…And so you run towards those little shots of fate, where the world turns. That is the lure, that is why we lose ourselves, when powerless from hurt and grief, in drugs or gambling or drink; in addictions that collar the broken soul and shake it like a dog. I had found my addiction on that day out with Mabel. It was ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin. I had taken a flight to a place from which I didn’t want to ever return.
- from Chapter 18, “Flying Free”

Some responses to books utterly baffle me. This is one of them. There’s the one strain of reviews that dismiss this book as “too much about training hawks” and think it should only be read by hawk specialists. And then there’s the other group, full of glowing reviews, not only from those I expect, but from publications and reviewers that I couldn’t imagine would care to touch this with a ten-foot pole. Even the Economist (yup- that one, the one that loooooves its political books and Important Histories!) took time out to love this book.

I honestly don’t know what to say to the first group of people. I guess Mrs. Dalloway gives you too much information about some woman’s errands and Moby Dick tells you too much about whales, eh? But I’m absolutely delighted by the second group because this is one of those times that proves to me that truly powerful literature can and will find a way through to a wide group of people. This is the sort of book that will become a classic for all the right reasons- all the myriad of reasons that its readers found to resonate to it.

And there are plenty. H is for Hawk is Helen MacDonald’s memoir of her time training a goshawk, one of the most notoriously difficult birds to train, even for experienced falconers. It is also an ongoing psychological analysis of her own state of mind during this time, since she takes on this very challenging project after the death of her father. MacDonald tracks the progress of her grief as she conceives of, acquires and begins the training process of a hawk who comes to be called Mabel.

The most powerful spell drawing the reader into this work is MacDonald’s raw emotionality. From the beginning, we are lured into the maelstrom of her grief via combination of surreal, interlocking images and impressions, literary imaginings and interludes of lucid narrative that come to seem dreamlike in their very normalcy. She slowly transports us out of our senses until we are properly prepared to be living inside of her skin, all of a sudden blinking our eyes, and finding, like MacDonald, that we are looking out on a world that is different from what we have known, understanding what she means when she finds stepping outside to be full of danger:

Leaving the house that evening is terrifying. 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.. Everything 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. 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 close a dog barks twice and there’s broken glass by the path and next to it is a father from the breast of a woodpigeon- “Bloody hell, Mabel,” I whisper, “Who spiked my tea with acid?”

MacDonald takes us to live in a place of unrestrained emotions, all of her emotional dams broken- the sort of blocks we put in place that are full of qualifiers to protect our inner lives from bumping up against the inner cores of others, or worse, against the more successful retaining walls that they have put in place to protect their own. It is no wonder, then, that like so many British Romantics, American transcendentalists and Catholic saints before her, she snaps her creances (1) and retreats from a suddenly unfamiliar and threatening world and into something that matches the new place where she and her emotions live: wildness.

Robert MacFarlane wrote, in his beautiful prose-poem to the untamed, open spaces of the British Isles that is The Wild Places, that the word “wild” has a complex etymology:

The etymology of the word 'wild' is vexed and subtle, but the most persuasive past proposed for it involves the Old High German wildi and the Old Norse villr as well as pre-Teutonic ghweltijos. All three of these terms carry implications of disorder and irregularity.. they bequeathed to the English root-word "will". Wildness, then, according to this etymology, is an expression of independence from human direction.

In this case, for MacDonald, that independent wildness is symbolized by the notoriously independent goshawk, which even MacDonald’s fellow falconers try to warn her off training. (2) In a gorgeous imagined conversation that extends throughout the book, MacDonald weaves the story of her own goshawk training through with TH White’s The Goshawk, the tragic tale of his ultimate failure to tame his own hawk. This other book haunts MacDonald’s imagination, serving as both practical and psychological foil for her own journey, touching off some fascinating, and deeply moving, passages of imaginary identification that make its inclusion far more than a convenient literary device.

Instead, it becomes a necessary companion to her emotional understanding of herself. As it turns out, TH White was also trying to disappear a large part of himself deemed unacceptable by society and by his own self-hatred, submerging it in interactions with animals and rendering himself unable to reveal it to others through retreat and silence. (3) MacDonald wrestles with White, conversing with him, raging at him, dreaming into being his tortured nights and forlorn hopes in short vignettes that ache with the sort of understanding that you hope that someone you love never has.

MacDonald relates to us how it feels when you are throwing yourself into this wildness and becoming something Other. Her psychological honesty is unflinching, showing us her desperate need to escape time through the immediacy of nature’s needs, as well as her attempts to transport herself into the mind of the goshawk, leaving her pitiful self behind on the couch. At times, this is surreal and otherworldly, such as when she mentally and emotionally joins in the hunt with Mabel:

Now I cannot see the hawk because I am searching for the pheasant, so I have to work out what she is doing by putting myself in her mind- and so I become both the hawk in the branches above and the human below. The strangeness of his splitting makes me feel I am walking under myself, and sometimes away from myself. Then for a moment, everything becomes dotted lines, and the hawk, the pheasant and I are merely elements in a trigonometry exercise, each of us labeled with soft italic letters. And now I am so invested in the hawk and the pheasant’s relative positions that my consciousness cuts loose entirely, splits into one or the other, first the hawk looking down, second the pheasant in the brambles looking up, and I move over the ground as if I couldn’t possibly affect anything in the world. Time stretches and slows. Then the pheasant is flushed, a pale and burning chunk of muscle and feathers, and the hawk crashes from the hedge towards it. And all the lines that connect heart and head and future possibilities, those lines that connect me with the hawk and the pheasant and with life and death suddenly become safe, become tied together in the small muddle of feathers and gripping talons that stand in mud in the middle of a small field in the middle of a small county in the middle of a small country on the edge of winter.

And at times it is touchingly sad, such as when MacDonald begins to play games with Mabel in her isolation, discovering, not entirely with a sense of joy, that the fierce goshawk likes to play:

I have spent my evenings playing with Mabel. I’ve made her toys out of paper and tissue and card. She turns her head upside down, puffs out her chin-feathers, squeaks, picks up the toys in her beak, drops them and preens. When I throw her balls of scrunched up paper she catches them in her beak and tosses them back to me with a flick of her head. It is as good as it gets. When I told Stuart I played catch with her, for awhile he didn’t believe me. You don’t play with goshawks, Helen. It’s not what people do.

MacDonald’s journey back to herself shows us the necessity, sometimes, of stepping so far outside of the boundaries that only then can you look back with a sense of understanding, identity or affection on the place that you originated from. It both a breathtaking, often dark, but always beautiful assurance of all the things that await us beyond the pale of human reason and desire, whenever we need them, but also that the road eventually does curve around towards home, whenever we are ready for it to do so. Mapped gorgeously out onto her understanding of her relationship with the goshawk, MacDonald shows us powers of perception that are terrifying, but ultimately forgiving, that ultimately offer us both torture and the succor we never dared hope for.

A wonderful grace note of this moving emotional journey was the psychological particularity of MacDonald’s journey. This was an underpinning that made this work ring true to me, that did so much to remove it from the realm of literary exercise and to give me the heart and brain I needed to see to truly break my heart. This is clearly an academic mind- the reach for a fellow writer to share her pain cut me deeply, especially as she begins to almost automatically go through the exercise of bringing him to life, writing character sketches and sharing bits of research like any academic article- only to have it collapse into the fevered imaginings of firesides and walks in the woods never described that remind us of the jagged roadblocks and unexpected chasms that strong emotions throw up in in the psyche.

It is also a mind concerned with history and with politics. Like any trained academic, MacDonald’s impulse is to put what she is experiencing into context, which means that we will get small bits and pieces of the history of falconry’s place in the British national myth as surface evidence of her attempts at calm and rationality, it means that her sublimated anxiety comes out in worries over the fact that Hitler and racists sometimes liked falconry (indeed apparently TH White’s hawk came from the same man who provided hawks to SS leaders) (4) , it means that like any good analytic mind she has already half self-psychoanalyzed herself before she’s even begun (even if this does her no practical good.)

This made every single time she interacted with Mabel ring all the truer and deeper to me, showing us how all of her other tools had failed her when it came to dealing with grief, and she was clinging to this hawk as the one thing that seemed to offer her refuge, and then understanding of her grief. It meant that when she finally got to the core of her reasons for loving Mabel, that however literary or symbolic or psychologically false it might have seemed at the beginning, by the end, it was the natural and inevitable conclusion for a story that was, ultimately, about putting back together all the pieces of her that wouldn’t work at the beginning.

This is a book of escape. This is a book of deep self-examination. This is a diary observation of what it feels like to crumble, inwardly. This is a book of rediscovery and healing. But ultimately, this is a book of poetry. This is a book about knowing what you love, so that when the time comes, you know what will heal you.

(1)Creance- a line used by falconers while training their birds- it keeps the bird tethered to their arm while they are trained to fly away and back to their masters from farther and farther distances. Poorly made creances will snap, leaving hawks free to fly away- many never return.

(2) The goshawk was dismissed throughout the nineteenth century as “willful” and “independent” by the aristocratic men who dominated falconry, and romantically conceived of, in the late Renassiance, as a female symbol, much like ships and the sea, to be “courted and seduced” rather than dominated- since one never fully could. Falconry’s place in the man-vs-nature “civilizing” story of the nineteenth century is frequently discussed.

(3)TH White was gay and a self admitted sadist- the latter of the two qualities perhaps, his therapist thought, having been picked up through the cruelties of his boarding school days, and the constant threat of violence he was under during his parents’ fights over his cradle in India. The saddest story related about him here was how he built a beautiful bedroom in his country retreat, full of romantic-colored bedspreads and soft pillows, gilt-edged mirrors, woven curtains and carved furniture- and then wouldn’t allow himself to sleep in it. He slept on an army camp bed in the next room.

(4)One of my favorite passages comes from these musings. I’ve rarely seen someone so bravely confront something so emotionally a part of their core identity and see it for what it is: “On the Ridgeway path, aged nine or ten, was where for the first time I realized the power a person might feel by aligning themselves to deep history. Only much later did I understand these intimations of history had their own, darker, history. The chalk country-cult rested on a presumption of organic connections to a landscape, a sense of belonging sanctified through an appeal to your own imagined lineage. That chalk downloads held their national, as well as natural, histories. And it was much later, too, that I realized that these myths hurt. That they work to wipe away other cultures, other histories, other ways of loving, working and being in a landscape. How they tiptoe towards darkness.” (By the way, I suspect that this interest in naturalism's place in British myth, along with the strong place of TH White in MacDonald's imaginings, has at least something to do with the Economist's interest in it.)
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,477 followers
March 27, 2018
Helen Macdonald is a college English teacher who goes into a tailspin after the death of her father. She works her way out of her grief by taking up the challenging task of mastering and training a goshawk. She had the experience of working with smaller, more common hawks in her youth, but goshawks are big and notoriously unruly. In this process she reads about a beginner’s efforts chronicled in T.H.White’s book from the early 30’s when he was a young teacher at a boarding school. Instead of seeing the process as a war of wills like White did, which led to serious mistakes and struggles, she takes a more scientific and successful approach. Even so, the process was full of emotionally wrenching incidents and became an isolating and obsessive endeavor which was somewhat difficult for me to identify with.

I did get a lot of empathetic vibes from how the required devotion puts her into ancient tradition of partnership between civilized human and wild predator. There is a whole language for the equipment needed and hawk behavior dating back to medieval times. It also gets her out in the lovely fields and woods of her Buckinghamshire residence some 50 miles away from London. I can feel some of the beauty and wonder she experiences in working daily with the finely tuned killing machine she calls Mabel. Her prose is wonderful, and there is plenty of self-deprecating elements of humor that add to the reading pleasure. Like when she gets after someone’s hutch of raised pheasants, takes a ravening interest in pictures in bird book, or when Mabel plays catch with her using paper balls. But the sense of this creature being an alien being is hard for me to dispel and thus to appreciate an emotional bonding with it. And I also have a hard time understanding how she gets so much benefit from pondering and channeling White’s adoption of the same obsession with a goshawk.

White’s journal of training his goshawk (“Gos”) preceded his writing “The Sword and the Stone”, which with two other volumes was consolidated into his famous Arthurian fantasy saga “The Once and Future King.” She understands he lived a lonely and tormented life as a closeted homosexual and was somehow twisted by his own beatings as a schoolboy into sadomasochistic channels. Both proclivities he seems to have successfully restrained in all his relations with children and friends. She indulges too much for my interests in psychobiography when she tries to account for why taming goshawk fulfills his need for mastering a wild thing and how the different characters in his fantasy epic fulfill a healthy sublimation of sorts by various aspects of his personality. I never quite get how the lessons she gleans from White apply to her own situation or to others who follow a long tradition of seeking transformation in relation to the wildness of nature.
I upped my rating a few weeks after reading this because it inspired a persisting hunger to understand better my own relation to wildness and that of humanity in general. Maybe feeling small in the face of one creature representing the vast web of nature can help one deal with our own mortality. I close with parallel quotes that illustrate what she was reaching for with this book, which reminds me of Browning’s “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for”:

That day-book that records White’s long lost battle with Gos is not simply about his hawk. Underneath it all is history and sexuality, and childhood, and landscape, and mastery, and medievalism, and war, and teaching and learning and love.

In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates us. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all. We share our lives happily in all their separation.

Profile Image for JimZ.
975 reviews427 followers
March 20, 2021
I read Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights in late 2020 and liked it...there were 41 essays and some shone and others not so brightly but the ones that shone certainly made up for things. And I certainly grew to respect this author for her intelligence and her writing.

I liked her later work more than this work, which as of today (March 20, 2021) has received 63,085 ratings and 8,466 reviews. Good God! 😮

Refreshing to see those number of reviews for a memoir/nature/animal behavior work of literature.

I would have liked this book more had Helen Macdonald early on had talked about the ethics of falconry and the reasons for its existence in the 20th and 21st century. I was having a hard time accepting its practice. I was finally so bugged by this—that I knew there was apparently widespread acceptance of falconry today in the 21st century (so why shouldn’t I accept it)?—that I went to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falconry ) and read about hawking from somebody other than Helen Macdonald and then went to watch two videos on YouTube, and then I “got it”. I accepted it, and then I could go back to the book (I had about 9 chapters to go) without that doubt/cognitive dissonance in the back of my mind. All I needed was a damn explanation for why she did what she did...if that had come earlier in the book, I think I would have appreciated it more.

Another element that I did not like a whole lot about the book—and it was a deliberate focus of the book—was her telling us of T. H. White and his attempts at hawking. It seemed that at times every other chapter was about him, and I just thought there was too much of him in there. I did not find him to be super-interesting, and I didn’t care all that much about him, and she kept on going back to him. Again, I am probably in the minority because his book/diary of training a hawk is considered by some to be a wonderful book (Goshawk).

The other thing I did not like was that, to my mind, Helen Macdonald was a not a very likable character as she portrayed herself in the memoir. I understood she was grieving for her father, and so the relationship she had with him and how she reacted to his death should be something I fully accept and respect. Still, she did not seem all that friendly to people around her, and she often wanted them to go away so she could be with her hawk, etc. etc. But then I realized as she disclosed late in the book that she was suffering from a deep clinical depression. And then it all made sense to me. And by book’s end, she was coming out of her depression, and I was very glad for her.

So basically, it was my misunderstanding of things that made me dislike it for a good chunk of time that I was reading it. Once I understood things, then my overall feeling to the book was a positive one. If that makes any sense. 🤨

• wow, I guess I’m not the only one with problems with this book… https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/bo...
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,851 followers
February 9, 2017
I generally don't do memoirs, but not because I'm a snob for everything else. I don't do them because I'm not really interested. A bit more oddly, I'm only mildly interested in hawks and falcons. I certainly never went out of my way to learn more after reading Stephen King's The Gunslinger, so why am I going out of my way now?

Mostly, it's because of the writing. I heard from several sources that it was good and I stayed as a low blip in my radar for quite some time, but then, finally Ilana tipped it over the edge for me. :) There's some really good biography stuff about T. H. White in here, and after having just read and enjoyed The Once and Future King, I didn't need that much further encouragement. :)

So, thoughts?

Helen Macdonald knows how to tell a story of herself. She managed to bring in personal tragedy in such a way that brought out real emotion, creatively, without dragging anyone down with her. In fact, it was the goshawk and the mirroring with this delightful bird that helped her work through so much. It's more a tale of becoming a partner and discovering the real nature of reality, and that includes both life and death, profoundly. In a more timid hand, the writing could have gone astray, or get bogged down as a scholarly work on the history of hawking, but no, it always remained personal with tons of interesting anecdotes.

So how does it relate to T. H. White? He failed in his own attempts to train or enter a partnership with is own goshawk, and it was entirely due to his relationship with the world and his own homosexuality. Helen Macdonald uses him and his writing, his history, and his particulars of psychology as a wonderful foil against her own journey. The mirrors were multilayered, with Bird versus Macdonald, and White versus Macdonald, and the mix was damn effective.

It also helped that her use of language was always enjoyable, reliable, and insightful.

I'm very happy to have gotten around to this, and I must thank Ilana for pushing me over the edge. Thanks!

I must never forget that I must spread my own wings and try new things or I, too, will stagnate. :)
Profile Image for Mandy.
3,103 reviews261 followers
November 21, 2014
I’m definitely in the minority with this one. It has received almost universal acclaim, rave reviews and won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. But I found it tedious and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. An amalgam of nature writing, memoir and literary history, the impetus for writing it came from Helen Macdonald’s extreme grief at the sudden death of her father, to whom she was very close. In a strange sort of identification, she bought and trained a goshawk, Mabel. Mabel became her companion in mourning and the bird’s rage and violence seemed to reflect Macdonald’s own rage at her loss. She’s had a lifelong obsession with birds of prey, and this is her second book about them, the first being a cultural history. Certainly there is a lot of interesting information in this book, and I enjoyed her reflections on T H White and his own experience with a goshawk. He had a very combative relationship with his bird and his battles with it reflected his battle with his own demons and it’s clear that Macdonald sees nature as a mirror of a person’s own emotions. The writing is powerful and often poetic, and there’s little to actually dislike about the book. But it just isn’t one I could relate to, nor could I relate to her extreme grief or her relationship with the bird, and thus I remained unmoved.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book446 followers
September 1, 2016
I do not read enough non-fiction. When I come to a book like this one, it makes me wonder why. Helen Macdonald has written a marvelous chronicle of her journey from grief to acceptance, achieved through the training of a goshawk.

When Helen loses her father, she loses her stability. He has been her friend and mentor, and in many ways she has patterned her life after his. The loss seems insurmountable. Having a background in and love of falconry, she decides to get a goshawk from a breeder in Ireland and train the hawk to hunt. Her true purpose, besides the training of the hawk, is to lose herself in the activity and life of the bird and cease to feel her own sorrow and loss.

Parallel to Helen's story, she tells us the story of T. H. White, the author who wrote The Sword in the Stone, but also the author of The Goshawk. When Helen was quite young, she read The Goshawk and much of her interest in falconry was born there. What is interesting is that White was not detailing the proper way to train a hawk. Everything he does with his hawk is wrong. He is a master of mistakes and miscues.

As we get to know Helen and her hawk, Mabel, we also get to know White and his hawk, Gos. The comparison can be made in the training certainly, but there is much more at the heart of what both of these people expect to get from these wild creatures that they take into their lives. Helen is lost because she has been deprived suddenly of the man who figures most prominently in her life and White is trying to exorcise the demons that come from feeling a childhood abandonment and being homosexual in a world that neither understands nor wishes to understand homosexuality.

For those of you who know me at all, you will know that Merlin is one of the characters of literature that speaks to me personally. I have loved the idea of him since my own childhood. This book shed some light for me on why White's Merlyn (his spelling) is so different than the Merlin of legend and Mary Stewart. I found this part of the book particularly fascinating and it has inspired me to re-read White's The Once and Future King. I think I will bring something different to the read this time than I did before...thanks to Helen Macdonald.

If you have ever lost a father, or anyone you loved and respected, you will find much to hold on to here. If you have ever felt different, apart, or wondered at the part of you that is cruel or unkind or protective, you will find something to hold on to here. If you have ever thought you would like to soar with a bird, lose yourself in the wildness of nature or simply disappear, you will find something to speak to you here.

Reading this book was like opening a gift, wrapped in shiny tinsel and paper, and finding inside something you desperately wanted but did not know existed. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
607 reviews375 followers
September 2, 2019
I haven’t recently experience a great loss in my life, I’ve never read T.H. White’s The Goshawk, and I knew nothing about hawking, but something about H is for Hawk always appealed to me. When it was first published a few years back it was the book that I met with frequently in the bookshop and had a flirtatious, but never financially binding, relationship. By year’s end the book made an appearance on many best-of lists, but it still remained a book I always intended to read.

Many a reader can read these words and conjure to their mind’s eye a stack with wide spines bearing long Russian names, covers stamped with award-season gold, and Thomas Pynchon. Alas, H is for Hawk found itself in dangerous company, doubly so since I didn’t own a copy. As the seasons changed, and hardcover became soft, I one day found myself gifted with a copy of the novel. Perhaps you’ll be unsurprised to hear that it collected dust on my shelf for over a year.

After having read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, I have a better understanding of my reluctance to read the novel, but am glad I finally got down to the business of getting it read. If nothing else, the concept of H is for Hawk begs further investigation. When Macdonald’s father passed away, she decided to put her life on hold in order to train a goshawk. Are you not entirely sure what a goshawk is? Worry not, as Macdonald’s got you covered with a 300-page treatise on the avian beasties.

If you worry that a book that long about hawks or, more specifically, one woman and her hawk would be overkill, you’ve captured my pre-reading apprehension of this book. I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot more depth and academia than I had expected. The book carries two separate stories: that of Macdonald attempting to tame Mabel and of Macdonald reevaluating and retelling T.H. White’s novel about taming his own goshawk.

It took me a bit to see the parallels, but both stories are those of troubled people who take on mastery of a beast as spiritual quest. Training a goshawk, it turns out, happens to be an insanely demanding task. Luckily, Macdonald is able to regale her own struggles with genuinely fascinating bits of history and frequent examinations of her own grief after her father’s death.

Indeed, the book is heavy in many ways. The greatest depths of Macdonald’s grief and, I daresay obsession, coincide with her most trying periods of taming her hawk. The brief reprieves from these emotional lows are filled with the retelling of White’s errors and Macdonald’s criticism of his poor handling of his hawk.

This makes for reading that is surely not entertainment on a page-to-page basis but, when taken as a whole, is a tale of a powerful journey. Macdonald’s plumbing of the depths of her despair and frustration make for a more joyous and life-affirming resolution toward the end of the book. What’s more, the scenery painted by Macdonald in this book is breathtaking. Visions of rolling English countryside kept me enticed and provided a pleasant backdrop when the subject matter was too heavy.

Heavy though it all is, I’m glad I finally got around to reading H is for Hawk. It is a book that deserved all the praise it won three years ago and I’m happy to say it impressed me a great deal. Though it is a bit outside my usual comfort zone, H is for Hawk made for a welcome departure. It’s an emotional and academic endeavor, but most importantly it is written with such honesty that it stands to become timeless.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
350 reviews388 followers
April 12, 2015
I may be one of the few people who didn't love this book. A more accurate rating for me would be 2.5 stars.

I was very excited to read this memoir by Helen Macdonald as I am a birder and was drawn to the idea that the author turned to raising a goshawk as a way to channel her grief over the sudden death of her father. The book starts off promisingly, and much of the language is lyrical and just beautiful to read. However, I found myself less and less interested while reading -- to the point where finishing the book seemed more like a chore than a pleasure.

Macdonald spends quite a large portion of the book analyzing the life an writings of author TH White, who wrote a book titled "The Goshawk." For me, I found the constant flashbacks to White to be a drag on the book. Frankly, I think I would have liked the book much better had she only focused on her experience instead making parallels to White's book.

For those interested in the subject matter, and the patience for a slow-moving book, I would recommend H is for Hawk. Others should probably skip it.
Profile Image for Penny.
325 reviews80 followers
November 14, 2014

I normally don't go near a 'Misery Memoir'. And I know exactly how it feels to lose a much loved father. Do I really want to read about someone else's loss?

However, this book is astonishing.

It's hard to describe - in fact whilst I was reading it I tried to explain to a friend and fellow book lover what it was all about, and the words just wouldn't come. I know I won't do it justice.

I'll try again - it's a non fiction book about a woman, a Cambridge academic and falconer, who spirals into grief and depression following the death of her beloved father. Surrounding herself with 'self help' grief books she understands logically why she is feeling and acting the way she is. No partner, no children and at one time in the book no home or job, she is desperately lonely and alone.

Early on during this bleak period she buys a goshawk, and the book is largely about the training of this bird. It would be far too easy to say that the hawk fills up the gaps in Macdonald's life, but of course to a large extent it does - she has purpose once again.

Interwoven very cleverly into the book is the life of author T H White, a fellow falconer but also a lonely man living on the outskirts of society.

The whole book is beautifully written. The quality of the nature writing is outstanding and brings alive the flatlands surrounding Cambridge, an area I know very well. But Macdonald has skills as a biographer too. I doubt I will read many better books this year.
Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books543 followers
August 28, 2017
I didn't know what to expect from this book, despite having read the summary and several glowing reviews. It seemed to have an odd premise, added to that I'm not a huge fan of reading non fiction, nor do I have an interest in birds of prey. Nonetheless, I was intrigued and grabbed a copy, and I'm glad I did. The story itself is not so much about hawks, as it is about Macdonald dealing with grief and finding a reason to get up in the morning. This was, for me, not unputdownable, however, I immediately warmed to the author's voice and the language is beautifully descriptive, almost poetic at times, a love letter to her father, to her hawk, to nature. I won't go so far as to say this book has me turning into a fan of falconry, but it does rouse an interest in exploring Macdonald's other writing, purely for her style and memorable voice. A worthwhile read.
Just as an aside - weirdly, I just opened my email to see a Groupon for Falconry School?!

Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Mona.
461 reviews283 followers
August 3, 2015
Haunting, Poignant Account of Grief and Falconry

Memoirs Are Not Usually My Cup of Tea

I usually avoid memoirs. You know, the Hollywood celebrity tell-alls. I'm just not interested. (I made an exception for Patti Smith and Alan Cumming, but then, those were not celebrity gossip memoirs at all, but much more personal ones. And both of those people feel like kindred spirits.)

A Very Different Kind of Memoir

This book is a memoir, but in a very different vein.

The Death of Helen's Father

It's a very personal account by a very private person of grieving over the loss of a loved one. Helen Macdonald's beloved father, a well known photojournalist, dies suddenly.

The loss devastates her.

"I knew he was dead because that was the sentence she said after the pause and she used a voice I’d never heard before to say it. Dead. I was on the floor. My legs broke, buckled, and I was sitting on the carpet, phone pressed against my right ear, listening to my mother and staring at that little ball of reindeer moss on the bookshelf".

Training a Goshawk to Work Through Grief

Helen's way of working through her enormous loss is to train a goshawk, whom she names Mabel.

"As I sit there happily feeing titbits to the hawk, her name drops into my head. Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name. There is something of the grandmother about it: antimacassars and afternoon teas. There's a superstition among falconers that a hawk's ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of it's name. Call a hawk Tiddles and it will be a formidable hunter; call it Spitfire or Slayer and it will probably refuse to fly at all. White called his hawk Gos for short, but also awarded him a host of darkly grandiose other names that for years made me roll my eyes in exasperation. Hamlet. Macbeth...Astur. Baal..Odin...Death. Tarquin...Imagine, I used to think, amused and faintly contemptuous. Imagine calling your goshawk any of those things! But now that list made me sad. My hawk needed a name as far from that awful litany, as far from Death as it could get."

Because, of course, Death has just taken from Helen someone she loved.

Helen's Lifelong Love of Falconry

Helen's been obsessed with falconry since she was a child. At six, she drew a detailed picture of a kestrel in one of her notebooks:

"Here, says the picture, is a kestrel on my hand. It is not going away. It cannot leave."

Which is the point (although not an entirely accurate one). Helen's father is gone forever. She needs something which won't leave, although, in fact, many hawks can and do leave their owners.

T.H. White's "The Goshawk"

For example, Gos, the goshawk in T.H. White's The Goshawk did abandon his owner, who was mistreating him.

Helen weaves an account of the T.H. White's tormented life in with her own story. White was a closeted homosexual with sadistic leanings and had been a severely abused child (his father kept threatening to shoot him). He eventually became an accomplished falconer, but his first experiment in falconry, recounted in The Goshawk, goes terribly awry. He has no idea what he's doing.

After writing The Goshawk (which he actually had not intended to publish), White, of course, went on to write some very famous books about King Arthur, including The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone.

Helen, though, manages to tell us about White's early misadventures in falconry without judgement. With great compassion she shows us that White's mistreatment of Gos comes from his own horrible upbringing. She understands White very well.

"Feral. He wanted to be free. He wanted to be ferocious. He wanted to be fey, a fairy, ferox. All those elements of himself he'd pushed away, his sexuality, his desire for cruelty, for mastery: all these were suddenly there in the figure of the hawk."

Helen's Early Training of Mabel

Helen loves and, at first, identifies with, the magnificent Mabel; sees Mabel as a mirror (in much the same way White unconsciously made Gos a mirror).

Helen isolates herself and devotes herself singlemindedly to the hawk's training.

She is convinced that the isolation and immersion in the natural world are what she needs to heal.

However, after a memorial service for her dad, she realizes that in fact the opposite is true. She needs human companionship, not isolation in the wild, in order to heal.

At first, she identifies strongly with the goshawk:

"Grief had spurred me to fly the hawk, but now my grief was gone. Everything was gone except this quiet sylvan scene. Into which I intended to let slip havoc and murder. I stalked around the edge of the wood, crouching low, holding my breath. My attention was microscopically fierce. I’d become a thing of eyes and will alone."

Mabel Becomes the Hunter She Was Born to Be

Helen gives us amazing descriptions of the landscape and of Mabel's evolution into her natural state as a predator. She doesn't flinch from describing the bloodshed and savagery of it.

"Things were going wrong. Very wrong. One afternoon Mabel leapt up from her perch to my fist, lashed out with one foot and buried four talons in my bare right arm. I froze. Blood was dripping on the kitchen floor. I could do nothing. Her grip was too powerful. I had to wait until she decided to let go. The pressure was immense, but the pain, though agonising, was happening to someone else. Why has she footed me? I thought wildly, after she released her grip and continued as if nothing had happened at all. She has never been aggressive before."


"Now the rabbit is dead, its pelt bunched between the hawk’s gripping talons, but blood upwells as she breaks into its chest, and I cannot stop watching it, this horrible, mesmerising, seeping claret filling up the space, growing jelly-like as it meets the air, like a thing alive. It was a thing alive.”

But as Mabel finds her true purpose--to hunt--Helen realizes that she and Mabel are not at all the same and she slowly starts to find her way back to the human world.

Helen's Vulnerability

The beauty of this book is the way Helen, whose heart has been ripped open by loss (in the same way that the creatures Mabel kills have their hearts ripped out of them), exposes grief. She is totally vulnerable. There is no veneer of pretense, no pretending that she is fine. We feel the pain in her heart. She describes it in the language of the poet that she is:

"The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world."


"We clung to each other, crying for Dad, the man we loved, the quiet man in a suit with a camera on his shoulder, who had set out each day in search of things that were new, who had captured the courses of stars and storms and streets".


"I missed my dad. I missed him very much. The train curved and sunlight fell against the window, obscuring the passing fields with a mesh of silver light. I closed my eyes against the glare and remembered the spider silk. I had walked all over it..."

It's almost like a poem about love, loss, and falconry.

Helen Macdonald is brave enough to let us inside her private sorrow. And she is wise enough not to try to "fix" or suppress her mourning, but to let it run its course.

Helen is a Great Audio Reader Too

By the way, I listened to the audio. Macdonald is one of those rare authors who is also an excellent reader of her own work. Her soft British voice lets us inside her heart.
Profile Image for Melanie.
Author 6 books1,194 followers
June 1, 2021
"If birds are made of air, as the nature writer Sy Montgomery says, then writing a great bird book is a little like dusting for the fingerprints of a ghost. It calls for poetry and science, conjuring and evidence. In her breathtaking new book, “H Is for Hawk,” winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book Award, Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence — and her own — with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering."
Vicki Constantine Croke, The New York Times

I am late to the game with this one. This book sat on my shelf for months, patient, attentive, the delicate bird of prey on its cover looking in my direction every time I walked by.

And then I just dived in. And words will fail me. My words feel bland after Helen Macdonald's chirping and buoyant prose, at once bristling, raw, descriptive and vital. A work that is filled to the brim with the elements, with heart, with grief, with grit, with feathers and blood. I never thought I would care this much about a baby goshawk called Mabel, bought for 800 pounds on a Scottish quayside, and trained in the English countryside.

A wildly endearing feat of nonfiction, a wondrous journey suffused with pain and beauty, elegance and wit (the humor in this book, self-deprecating and wry!), nature and history, wildness and city.

A contemporary journey mirrored by an ancient one, T.H. White's "The Goshawk", an 18th century treatise which echoes the author's awakening in the most touching and mysterious way.

I fail to do justice to the delicate nature of this book, its evasiveness, its frailty, its iridescence, its stupendous command of language. It changes like the weather, it fluctuates like the heart, it grows like a baby goshawk into its tremendous adult self. It will seduce you like nothing else can.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,652 reviews1,484 followers
September 9, 2017
Why only two stars? The simple answer is that the book was only OK for me.

The book is said to be about how the author, at the death of her father, dealt with her grief. She was thirty-seven when he died, he sixty-seven. All of her life she had been fascinated by raptors, had read about them and trained them. To cope with her grief, she determined she would train a goshawk. How could training a raptor help her handle her grief and subsequent depression? This was my question. On completing the book, I am not sure I have an adequate answer! The next question is easier. Why did she choose a goshawk? Training such a bird would be a challenge and she had always been interested in them. They “resemble sparrow hawks the way leopards resemble house cats.” Bigger, bulkier, bloodier, deadlier. From her childhood, she had been drawn to falconry and specifically to the writings of naturalist and author T.H. White. He is the author of The Goshawk and renowned for his series The Once and Future King, beginning with The Sword in the Stone and concluding with The Book of Merlyn. Note that Helen Macdonald's book is as much about T.H. White as it is about the author's months training her goshawk, Mabel. His story centers around themes of being a pawn of his parents, not belonging, homosexuality and of course falconry. Fans of White ‘s books may find Macdonald’s book more interesting than I did. There is more biographical information on White than there is about Macdonald or her dead, beloved father!

The telling flits back and forth between chapters on falconry, Helen's childhood and T.H. White. I found the reading disjointed; flipping between subjects was disconcerting. The shifts are abrupt. In the description of nature there are lines of lyrical beauty, but on the whole the writing style did not appeal to me. Too often it is theatrical, overdone and lacks clarity. As a specimen of nature writing, there are just not enough lines of high caliber to counter the evasiveness characterizing her ability to express, or for that matter tackle, her emotional problems. It seemed often she found it easier to discuss White than herself.

How Macdonald eventually came to cope with her grief, as it is discussed in the book, come as flashes of insight rather than through thoughtful analysis. It took me a good two thirds of the book to be able to intuit why she thought training a hawk could help her handle her grief! At the book’s conclusion, I cannot help but wonder if it wasn’t merely the passage of time that lessened her grief.

I wanted to feel sympathy for Macdonald. I wanted to feel attachment to Mabel. I felt neither. The “sport” repulses me. I personally do not see the joy of holding a “killing machine” in one’s hand, and the book did not convince me otherwise. I do perceive that there does develop a strong bond between falconer and raptor.

The occasional lyrical lines describing nature, some interesting information on the history of falconry and books written on the subject allowed me to appreciate the book to some extent. Having recently read The Peregrine by J.A. Baker, one of the books mentioned, I appreciated getting another perspective on how that book was viewed when it first came out.

The author narrates the audiobook, and she does a remarkably good job. Few authors are capable of such a good reading. I always understood what was said, and it is read with feeling.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,150 reviews1,592 followers
May 11, 2015
When a friend extolled the virtues of H is for Hawk, nothing about it sounded particularly appealing. Falconry? To me, the subject is a big yawn. T.H. White? Certainly T.H. White is a brilliant author, but Arthurian legend The Once and Future King is not the kind of book I gravitate to. So why, then, am I so sure that H is for Hawk will not only land on my list of the best books I read this year, but also take its place as one of the finest contemporary books I’ve read, period?

For me, the answer is that the finest books have always taught us what it means to be human. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald discovers that “you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it means to be not.”

But let me backtrack. Helen Macdonald – a naturalist, historian, poet, illustrator – enjoys a very close relationship with her photographer father, who dies prematurely and unexpectedly in 2007. Engulfed by grief, she retreats from the world, taking on a monumental task: training a goshawk, where she is compelled to spend every waking second in a “delicate, reflexive dance of manners.” Here is her description of her goshawk, named Mabel: “The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel.”

Indeed, the polymath that Helen Macdonald is – an observant naturalist combined with a lyrical poet – pervade this description and many others. Gradually, Ms. Macdonald colors in the personality of Mabel without ever depriving her of her natural savagery. Take this: “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all. The hawk in flight, me running after her, the land and the air a pattern of deep and curving detail, sufficient to block out anything like the past or the future, so that the only thing that mattered were the next thirty seconds.”

This alone would propel H is for Hawk to the very top of my list. But there’s more. Ms. Macdonald also weaves in “The Goshawk” by T.H. White, a man who is revealed to be a damaged outcast, and a secret sadist who is consistently fighting his basest instincts. Both T.H. White and Helen Macdonald fight demons – his are abuse and his gender orientation; hers is her oppressive grief. Yet a hawk helps each of them take wing.

Helen Macdonald performs a magical feat, immersing the reader in a claustrophobic location where nothing exists but the reader, the author, and the hawk. Often, I found myself near tears without quite knowing why. The journey of Helen and the hawk – solitary, self-possessed, free from human emotion, untouched by loss – is one that will remain with me for a long time.
Profile Image for Donna.
541 reviews182 followers
September 5, 2017
Well, that was exhausting to read. So much so, it took me three weeks to complete it, despite it being only 300 pages long. Still, I applaud the author for writing this memoir which was an odyssey of her journey through grief over her beloved father's death. Though sometimes, the journey felt more like an endless cycle of turning in circles or repeatedly having one's liver torn out and eaten like Prometheus. But substitute heart for liver in the author's case because she coped with her overwhelming grief mainly by avoiding it and by focusing on training a goshawk, something she could tame, unlike her grief.

Everyone grieves differently and grieves differently over different people, so I'm not passing judgment over the author or saying that how the author experienced her grief was a problem for me, even though it became one for her. The problem for me was, I was never given the chance to truly experience how the author felt on more than an intellectual level because I felt distanced from her, and also because something or rather someone important was missing from this book--her father. True, he passed away at the beginning of the book, but there were very few memories of him recounted afterward or even beforehand, as there could have been in a preface, so I never had a chance to know him the way the author did and therefore grieve over his loss as she did, except out of sympathy for her. In fact, there were many more sections in this book about an author from the past, T. H. White, than any mention of her father. White also sought to both avoid and to tame something inside him by taming a goshawk, though through a very different method than the author of this book. His methods, outlined in his book The Goshawk which MacDonald references often, appalled me, and I imagine it would do the same to any animal lover. So beware of this trigger warning and another to do with graphic references concerning the process of hunting with hawks. It was very rough reading as MacDonald went back and forth between her own crushing grief and disintegration, and the dysfunctional passages concerning White and his inability to accept who he was.

But you know what saved me from total despair, and what made all of this worth reading and suffering through? Two things. Mabel, the author's goshawk. What an amazing creature she was. And the amazingly descriptive writing, so perfectly detailed, so achingly beautiful and lyrical that the book read like poetry, though never flowery in nature. Through the wonderful writing, I was allowed to experience with all my senses every inch of the English countryside the author traversed. And I was able to experience what it felt like to be a goshawk in flight, to have a goshawk coming straight at me with steely eyes and sharp talons, same as if it were coming at me as if I were prey, but coming at me in friendship instead. So many passages thrilled me for the use of language alone, and many revealed in intellectual terms what the author was experiencing at any given time.

The author's first impression of her goshawk as it's uncovered before her:

She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

Her first real interaction with Mabel:

The goshawk is staring at me in mortal terror, and I can feel the silences between both our heartbeats coincide. Her eyes are luminous, silver in the gloom. Her beak is open. She breathes hot hawk breath in my face. It smells of pepper and musk and burned stone. Her feathers are half-raised and her wings half-open, and her scaled yellow toes and curved black talons grip the glove tightly. It feels like I’m holding a flaming torch. I can feel the heat of her fear on my face. She stares. She stares and stares. Seconds slow and tick past. Her wings are dropped low; she crouches, ready for flight. I don’t look at her. I mustn’t. What I am doing is concentrating very hard on the process of not being there.

The author's realization that she's identifying with Mabel:

I look. There it is. I feel it. The insistent pull to the heart that the hawk brings, that very old longing of mine to possess the hawk’s eye. To live the safe and solitary life; to look down on the world from a height and keep it there. To be the watcher; invulnerable, detached, complete. My eyes fill with water. Here I am, I think. And I do not think I am safe.

The author reflecting on Mabel's importance in her grieving process:

I look down at my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she’d been fractious with hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I’d pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I’d thought I’d lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she’d helped mend, not make.

There were so many other passages I could have shared, but I'm running long here and don't wish to give much more away. I'll just say, for the writing alone, I recommend this book. But for a more emotional and universal experience about the process of grieving for a cherished loved one, I recommend you look elsewhere. This is more of a psychological study of two very different people in distress, working it out or not with their hawks as detailed in their memoirs. It made for a great discussion with my book club. In the end, I'm glad I read it, but boy, it took much to get through it, and it took much out of me.
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