Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale…We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived her before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history. -H is for Hawk, pg. 265
I’m not sure where to begin with this one, because, let me tell you, this book is fantastic. Let me preface anything else I will write by saying I read about this book almost a year ago, before it was published. I was trolling the internet when I found a review for H is for Hawk. Not only am I obsessed with British nature/animal books (see Waterland by Graham Swift and Watership Down by Richard Adams for more context), but Helen MacDonald names her hawk Mabel!! My dog’s name! Based on this sound logic alone, I knew I had to read this.
H is for Hawk tells the at-times-tragic, at-times-hilarious story of Helen’s attempt to train a Goshawk after her father’s sudden death. Helen had trained hawks before, but never a Goshawk. Goshawk’s are known for their ferocity, and before her father’s death, Helen had always shunned the idea of training one. Following the lead of TH White, who published his story about training a Goshawk in 1951, Helen leads us through a treacherous British landscape filled with blood, death, and redemption. Whether you are interested in history, TH White, birds, family, love, or whatever, I would recommend this book.
I took my time with this book. On one hand this was because I had been waiting to read it for so long and when I’m excited about a book I don’t want it to end. On the other hand, this was a hard book to read! I had to keep looking up words that I didn’t understand. Helen’s vocabulary is daunting, as is her knowledge of hawk training and TH White.
I can’t decide if I want to become a total weird-o and read The Peregrine by J.A. Baker and The Goshawk by TH White, or if I should just let the hawk obsession die down naturally.
Update: I went to see Helen MacDonald speak last night on her book of poetry Shaler’s Fish. She ended up mainly discussing H is for Hawk, though she did begin by reading one of her poems. Let me just say my appreciation for and admiration of Helen has only increased. She is one of those people who you can just immediately tell is very intelligent. She’s not showy about it, but you can definitely tell. As someone who is obsessed with animals and the human-to-animal bond, I actually teared up twice listening to her describe her relationship to Mabel. When asked about her relationship to the bird, Helen said that Mabel “took me to the underworld and back on her wings.” Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is beautiful.