By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Helen Macdonald
Narrated by: Helen Macdonald
“H Is for Hawk” fails to fit a specific category of writing. It is partly memorialist; partly biographic, and partly naturalist (in a call-of-the-wild sense). It seems a perfect book to be awarded a Samuel Johnson literary prize. Johnson’s scatological mode of writing about everything from word definitions (Johnson wrote the first comprehensive English’ dictionary) to Shakespearean literature is evident in Helen Macdonald’s interesting book.
Macdonald’s book reviews the life of T. H. White. White is an English author admired by modern writers like J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. White wrote “The Once and Future King” and “The Sword in the Stone”, two magical stories about the legends of King Arthur. Interesting thoughts about White’s life are weaved into Macdonald’s view of herself, the recent death of her father, and her experience as an austringer (one who keeps goshawks).
A goshawk is a wild bird of prey, a large hawk, often used by falconers to hunt game in parts of the old and new world, like England, Scotland, Japan, and the U. S.. Falconry is still practiced but more as a specialized sport than a nobleman’s mark of distinction. Macdonald explains a lifelong fascination with the sport and decides, at the death of her father; to become an austringer for a goshawk she names Mabel.
THE AMAZING MANEUVERABILITY OF THE GOSHAWK:
What one finds in “H is for Hawk” is that goshawks are beautiful, solitary, deadly, and terrifying birds of prey. Macdonald seems driven to become a goshawk owner by how she views her own personality; i.e. a solitary and independent woman who is a professional writer and university scholar. The solitariness of Macdonald’s existence is magnified when her father dies. The loss of their close familial relationship compels her to buy and train a goshawk. Macdonald knows that a goshawk’s training requires obsessive attention and solitude; i.e. two qualifications that are parts of her nature. As a result, “H is for Hawk” becomes a manual for the correct way of training a goshawk.
Macdonald reminisces about her childhood. She recalls reading T. H. White’s books and her fascination with the ancient sport of falconry. She recalls White’s experience with a goshawk in a book he wrote about training his own bird of prey. White, like Macdonald, is a solitary figure. Unlike Macdonald, trauma, from a neglectful mother and father that hated each other, isolates White. Though the cause is different, loss of Macdonald’s father makes her feel isolated. He and she lose confidence in their ability to be independent, and competent adults.
White is believed to be a homosexual. This sexual categorization, in the 1950s, compounds White’s feelings of inferiority and isolation. He feels he needs to prove he is a competent human being. Macdonald suggests White buys and trains a goshawk to prove his ability and self-worth. White fails because he makes too many mistakes in trying to train the hawk. White’s book becomes a manual on how not to train a goshawk. Macdonald infers that White never escapes a sense of incompetence; in part because of his goshawk’ experience.
Like White, Macdonald feels she has to prove her human’ competence. In contrast to White’s goshawk’ experience, Macdonald is quite successful as a trainer and keeper. This is not a story that will resonate with all who listen to it. However, Macdonald is a very good writer. Among other categories, “H Is for Hawk” is an excellent manual on how to keep and train a goshawk. Any fault in the book is in its subject; not it’s writing.