Saying that Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is a book about a bird is like saying Moby Dick is a book about a whale – quite possibly this has been used, for this book or elsewhere, I haven’t actually read any Reviews of H is for Hawk – unless you count this post by Alisa Golden – it got many good ones, and prizes, and is a New York Times Bestseller – and has an awesome cover, for what that’s worth – well, and now that I think of it, I can’t say for sure that I’ve read Moby Dick. Would be hard to believe it wasn’t on some Reading List somewhere in my so-called education, but I don’t have a definitive recollection that I actually made it through, for what that’s worth. Anyhow, I heard about H is for Hawk on NPR, and was intrigued, but at the time the library wait list was several hundred deep and so I just put it on the To Read List. Which, for another reason I looked at recently, the List, that is, and then was in the library, and there was a copy of H is for Hawk. In the bird book section. Non-fiction. 598.944 MACDONALD
So, yes, it is about a bird. A hawk. A goshawk, in particular – Mabel – that Macdonald acquired and trained in the wake of her father’s sudden, untimely death. So, yes, it’s also about that – death and grief – and the running away, and running toward, and how life, eventuallysomehow goes on. Part nature writing, part memoir, plus the story of author T.H. White and his attempts to train a goshawk. Which might sound like a recipe for a big jumbled mishmosh, but it’s not. All the parts make the story and need to be there.
Macdonald’s lucid descriptive style also makes it work. I was definitively hooked on the third page with, “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.” A few pages later she describes a pair of goshawks she sees, “…they were loving the space between each other, and carving it into all sorts of beautiful concentric chords and distances. A couple of flaps, and the male, the tiercel, would be above the female, and then he’d drift north of her, and then slip down, fast, like a knife-cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl underneath her, and she’d dip a wing, and then they’d soar up again.”
And so, you go along with her for the journey, through all the struggles she relates, unflinchingly – I can’t even imagine – she’s just a year older than me, if that – crazy-making as my parents can be, they’ve always been there – I know the odds say they will pass before I do, but in one’s head that happens later rather than sooner, when they have lived a long, long life – allowing us to bear witness to her story. It’s quite the privilege to do so.
“Some things happen only once, twice in a lifetime. The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might be alive to see them.”