H is for Hawk is a bit of a departure from my normal reading habits since it is a memoir rather than a novel. I had heard high praise of the book and of Helen Macdonald’s writing, which grabbed my attention when it was released in 2014, although I never happened to pick it up. About a year ago I was with a patient of mine in her home and saw H is for Hawk sitting on an end table. “Oh, I’ve heard of this book!” I said. My patient told me she loved it and that she was reading through it for the third time. I was surprised by her enthusiasm and knew this book must be special to her. A couple weeks later, when I said goodbye for the final visit, she gave me the book. “Just promise you won’t let it sit on your shelf – if you don’t read it, pass it on to someone else,” she said. I promised. For a year, I looked at the cover of the book and said to myself that it was on my short list. When the New Year rolled around, I knew its time had come – I either had to read it or give it away.
H is for Hawk follows Helen Macdonald’s experience after her father suddenly dies and she decides to buy and train a young goshawk. Throughout this same time, she withdraws from the outside world and falls into a depression. Her journey with the hawk, which she names Mabel, is presented in tandem with the similar journey of T.H. White who also wrote of his trials in attempting to tame a goshawk decades before. I initially was thrown by the focus on White’s experiences with Gos, but it parallel’s Helen’s training experience in one way, and in another it shows the danger Helen and Mabel could have been in – both physically and emotionally.
I think because I had heard so much about this book I expected to be immediately blown away within the first two pages, which is a little unrealistic. I really started to fall in love with it as soon as Helen brings Mabel home and starts to get to know her. Macdonald’s writing is transporting. When the hawk first settled into Helen’s living room, I could almost see her sitting right in front of me; Macdonald details the feathers around Mabel’s beak and eyes, her facial expressions, and her body language in such a way that she became a real individual to me, distinct from all other hawks. The tone of her writing invites the reader to become immersed in her sensations and emotions without ever feeling manipulative. I became invested in Mabel’s training and grew excited and happy with each new success. When Helen first starts flying Mabel I was carried away to the woods and moors. Reading it, I felt I wanted nothing more than to sit in a field and watch birds soar overhead.
The more she gets to know Mabel, the more Helen starts to feel one with her hawk. The training is intensive, and initially requires her to eschew the outside world in order to help Mabel grow accustomed to her presence. Here is where Helen’s danger is, although neither she nor I were aware of it immediately. Perhaps we both wanted to be ignorant. When she takes Mabel out for walks on her fist, she avoids other joggers and people so as to not frighten the skittish bird, but Helen continues to avoid other people, even after Mabel is well-trained. She feels alien, lost in groups. When she hunts with Mabel however, she is able to imagine Mabel’s mental state. She feels herself as an extension of the hawk as she flushes rabbits or game birds for Mabel to chase down – even onto territory where she could become injured or where she does not have permission to hunt.
It’s not until her father’s memorial service that Helen realizes how isolated she has been. “[H]ands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks,” she thinks. It gradually starts her process into becoming human again. She has to learn how to love herself apart from the hawk and to learn to take joy in human company, again. The conclusion of Helen’s story at this time occurs when she drops Mabel off at an aviary for the moulting season. She says goodbye to Mabel for the summer, and goes inside for tea with her friends. Helen began her journey by leaving humans to take solace with a hawk and ended her journey leaving the hawk for the fellowship of people.
The power of this book is that when Helen became a hawk, I became a hawk. When Helen recognized her depression, I recognized it as well. When she gradually returned to human company, I felt validated. H is for Hawk is a beautiful book and may be one of the few books I have read recently that I feel is worth re-reading soon. I am immensely glad that I read it. I know I won’t be keeping my copy of the book, though – I will be handing it on to share so someone else can have the experience, as well.