H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald


As a child I was terrified of the flock of chickens on my family’s small farm. I’m not sure which worried me most: their horrible feet, their scary beaks, their alien feathery bodies, or the apparently random movement of the noisy flock. So a book about training a raptor as a grief healing mechanism is incomprehensible to me and it languished on my Books to Read list for nearly three years. I have been amply rewarded for overcoming that distaste.

The author has an interesting background; she says her parents did not go to the university and her father was a photographer for a newspaper. She studied at Cambridge and when she introduces herself to us, she is nearing the end of a three-year fellowship there. She tells us that her father teased that she must be a spy, as that is his idea of someone employed by Cambridge, while she observed that unlike her work, his involved the closely watching others as a spy might. As a child she always loved falconry, had ties to that community, and knowledge of the process of training. She tells about reading a book when she was nine that T.H. White had written about training his goshawk. She was horrified by it as was everyone else knowledgeable about training these birds.

Which brings me to one aspect of the book I want to remember. As she tells us of her path to depression and despair at the death of her father and recovery as she trained her goshawk Mabel, she recounts experiences of T.H. White. He was the anguished author, most famously of The Once and Future King, the retelling of the tales of King Arthur, giving us “Camelot” and Disney’s “The Sword and the Stone.” She recounts the disastrous experience he had with his hawk, called Gos, along with her own fraught time with Mabel. Though she was an experienced trainer, her emotional vulnerability made her doubt herself at every turn. As she examines her own path, she tells about his through his letters, his various books, his notes, and his book about his goshawk.

Another subject that caught my attention was the mysteriously named chalk-mysticism that refers to the chalk land formation in southern England. The mysticism “concerns itself with purity, a sense of deep time and blood belonging, and assumes that these solitudinous windswept landscapes are finer, better, than the landscapes below.” As I understand it, this has a connection to that Nazi phrase “blood and soil.” Here I’m going to quote from a website written by Dr. Stephen Quilley, a Canadian academic writing about this aspect of the book, as he captures my reaction perfectly.

Referring to the affective sway of the ancient Ridgeway path, the stone circles of Avebury, Stonehenge and the Glastonbury plain, she wonders about the powerful sense of belonging that people feel in aligning themselves with ‘deep history’. But of course any unblemished sense of alignment connecting lineage and culture with organic rootedness has darker and troubling connotations. Such myths ‘hurt…[because they] wipe away other cultures, other histories, other ways of loving, working and being in a landscape. How they tiptoe towards darkness’ (261). God I love that phrase. Are we not all, always tiptoeing towards darkness.

It’s a dilemma:  Humans need a sense of belonging and connection, while that very sense can slide us toward that darkness.

On the matter of dealing with grief, doing something you love that requires your full attention so you live in the moment is surely positive. Immersing yourself in an activity that connects you with wildness and killing little animals seems less likely to help. The story of her path through these thickets was engaging.

Well, it’s a fine book that is endlessly thought-provoking, but I fear I’ve given short shrift to much of its strength. I do recommend the NYT review.

 Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk, Grove Press, 2014, 300 pages (I listened to the audiobook read by the author). Available from the UVa and public libraries, and through Amazon.



  • I loved this book when I read it a couple of years ago (there’s a review on my blog, if you are interested), but was stunned when several in my reading group didn’t like it – for reasons like Helen should have been supporting her mother in her grief! I loved the falconry description and history, the TH White story, the description of place, the working through grief. I really don’t remember the “chalk mysticism”. How did I miss that?
    Anyhow, I thought the writing too was lovely.

  • I read your review and commented there. I agree with you that writing driven by grief needed include and compare itself to the grief of others. Like you I found he richness and variety of subjects, as well as the lyrical writing to be wonderful. When I heard the term “chalk mysticism” I had to run for the computer.


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