Saturday, January 9, 2016

H is for Hawk

Title:  H is for Hawk
Author:  Helen Macdonald
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2015. p288 ages.
ISBN:  0802123414 / 978-0802123411

Book Source:  I read this book based on its cover, title, and publicity.

Opening Sentence:  "Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I've come to love very much indeed."

Favorite Quote:  "Here's a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It's from the Old English berefian, meaning 'to deprive of, take away, seize, rob'. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn't to be shared, no matter how hard you try."

Dealing with grief is an individual journey. Cheryl Strayed's grief at the loss of her mother took her on a trek on the Pacific Coast Trail. Mimi Baird's journey took her on a quest to rediscover her father's work. Jesmyn Ward's way of coping was to bring to light the social and inequities that led to her losses. All stories of loss that found their way into a book. All as unique as the individuals telling the story.

This is Helen Macdonald's story. She is a naturalist and a falconer. Her devastating grief at the loss of her father took her to the world of goshawks and to the world of T. H. White - author of the Arthurian novels and goshawk trainer. A predatory bird named Mabel and a solitary, sad man on the outskirts of society become the things that get Helen Macdonald through her grief.

Retreating to nature as a healing source is a common theme. However, put into the context of a predatory bird, it takes on a whole new meaning. Somehow, after her father's death, Helen Macdonald seizes upon the idea of training a young goshawk. The human world recedes as she shuts herself off to devote the time and energy to training the young bird. The hawk comes to symbolize all she wants.  "The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.”

T H White enters the story because one of his lesser known works is a memoir titled The Goshawk. This book is one of inspirations behind Helen Macdonald's career as a naturalist. Revisiting this book during her own experience with a goshawk, Helen Macdonald tells not only her story but the history of T H White. The contrast between their two stories reinforces the individual journey of sorrow. Helen's grief centers on a sudden loss. White's grief is accumulated from a lifetime of having to hide his true self from society. Helen's journey becomes about reclaiming herself. White's is about looking for success and acceptance, if only from a bird. Helen's story ultimately is one of love; White's is one of anger.

In this way, this book is part memoir and part biography, both interesting in their own way. Equally as interesting is the naturalist aspect of the book - Mabel, the hawk herself. Admittedly, before reading this book, I knew nothing about hawks. I learned a lot and gained a new appreciation for these creatures that are "busier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much, much harder to see ... the birdwatchers' dark grail."

The writing itself is beautiful and convey the emotions of the book. It captures the fierceness of the hawk itself; the depth of Helen MacDonald's connection with the hawk; her despair; her single-minded focus on the hawk that deflects her grief, and the occasional moments of peace. In this way, this story of grief rings true. I don't know about hawks, but I do understand grief; we all have had our experiences. Even in an unfamiliar context, that emotion feels familiar and recognizable, and the journey out of grief brings hope. Therein lies the appeal of this book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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