When Helen Macdonald’s father dies, she descends into an almost debilitating grief that she works through as she trains a Goshawk. In H is for Hawk she steps the reader through the rudimentary basics of falconry while delving psychologically and poetically into the bird of prey’s impact on her psyche.
Macdonald’s prose is often-overwrought especially as she loses herself in self-doubt over her abilities to effectively train the hawk she named Mabel. Her grief is palpable as she wrestles with herself as she works the Goshawk, a notoriously difficult breed. The book is at its best when it is focused on the mechanics and history of falconry and on the hawk’s behavior. Her enthusiasm for the language of falconry is evident throughout. Her knowledge about the techniques of how much to feed the bird and when, how much the bird should weigh and how hungry is should be on hunt days, and the sometimes slow building of trust and ability for both her and the hawk are also on display. Macdonald’s descriptions of Mabel’s moods and actions, or her insights about the training, make the book a fascinating and worthwhile read.
She relies on her own past experience with other hawks and her father’s wisdom especially advising patience. But the book also runs parallel to another English hawk trainer, Terrence White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk she read as a child. White’s trials and tribulations mirror Macdonalds, as sure as the progress of Mabel’s training mirrors her accepting her father’s death. Though it’s obvious that White, an author and teacher, stumbled into falconry with little preparation, and Macdonald came to the sport, and specifically to her Goshawk, as part of her natural progression.
The book is a great look into hawk behavior, and the history of falconry. The man vs. Nature stuff is sometimes a little too philosophical and tedious but when it works, she brings the reader right into the place where she and the hawk are hunting, giving great insight to the thrill of the hunt and the patience required to get to that level.