H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald

Hello, Readers–

End of summer’s here at last, and I’ll miss it despite the fact I’ve done nothing but complain about heat and humidity the past few months. But change always scares me, and fall is a big change, perhaps the biggest seasonal change on the east coast. Why? Because it’s a step toward winter, the deadest of seasons (not the deadliest or ugliest or anything bad, by any means–I love winter, especially here in the South). Still, it’s a step toward death. Which leads me to the subject of this post–Helen Mc Donald’s disturbing yet amazing autobiography, H is for Hawk. What follows is my review.

This was a lovely book. Not a happy book, and not an easy book. But a thoughtful, interesting, beautifully-written one in which Helen McDonald weaves together three main threads–the loss of her father, TH White’s genius vis-a-vis his personal struggles, and her relationship with Mabel, a young female goshawk. How do these threads connect? I’m not sure I can explain it, because the tapestry is subtle, long and complex. The best I can say is the author is devastated by her father’s untimely death, cannot accept it or speak of it at first. She remembers loving hawks as a child, observing and training them with her father. This inspires her to purchase a young goshawk from Germany, I believe, the same place from which revered author TH White had gotten his beloved hawk, Gos. This also spurs McDonald’s memories of TH White’s autobiography, in which he describes training Gos, which McDonald argues has much to do with White’s own childhood. A gay man in merry old England at a time when it was not popular to be gay (especially in the eyes of his judgmental parents) made White feel like a misfit his entire life, despite his acclaimed teaching and writing career. Author of The Once and Future King, it’s ironic that the creator of this story of honor and nobility and equality should have so suffered at the hands of his own parents. But maybe that’s why he valued the beautiful Arthurian legend that inspired his work.

On to McDonald and her father. The pain of her father’s loss also inspires McDonald to raise a goshawk, easily one of the swiftest and deadliest killers on the planet. But McDonald does not judge her hawk, Mabel, for this. If anything, she respects her instinct and integrity. The hawk is an unabashed carnivore, honing in on her prey with laser precision. There’s no guilt, no remorse, and, from what I could tell, no subsequent bonding with her trainer. Still, Mc Donald loves this bird and somehow derives solace from its unrequited killing. It’s as if she identifies with this aspect of the bird (and I think she says so in the book), because raising the hawk helps her deal with her father’s death. He was brutally taken from McDonald, without warning or explanation. It was, in her view, a meaningless death. A sudden and terrible loss of the person she’d adored from childhood on. A gentle, kind man who studied the world through a photographer’s lens–from afar and with great respect, much like a tiny hare who lives his life unaware of the dangers that surround him–dangers like Mabel, who ruthlessly grabs the unwitting hare, crushes him to death with her claws, then devours him.

Similarly, TH White is able to deal with his homosexuality (and his father’s condemnation) through his relationship with his difficult goshawk, Gos. White’s attempt to control his very macho (though I believe Gos was female) hawk is in response to his own feelings of inadequacy for being gay.  I’m not quite sure how this works, either.  Both Mc Donald and White are in great pain and somehow externalizing that pain by raising remorseless killers helps them overcome it. Perhaps McDonald learns to accept death as  part of life–senseless, unexpected, and hurtful to those left behind–but a natural none-the-less.  This is what Mabel teaches her–that  in order to fulfill her destiny as a hawk, she must search and kill. There is no ulterior motive other than getting food. The hawk is guileless and driven by instinct. There’s no malice in her behavior.  It’s simply a matter of survival.  In this way, McDonald comes to admire, love and appreciate the hawk for who she is. So, too, she must continue to admire, love and honor her father, despite his swift and sudden death. He’s not killed out of malice either–he just dies because that is what we humans (and all living things) must do.  There is nothing more to it–just like the goshawk’s killing.  It’s the hand of fate, it’s guileless and remorseless.  It’s a ticking clock,  that’s all.  There’s on one to blame for her father’s death, because there’s no reason or intention behind it.  It just is.  If she can accept this about the hawk’s nature, she can learn to accept this fact about human life.  We live, we die, and we are mourned.  Thus, anger is displaced by sorrow, and McDonald can at least understand her father’s death.

In White’s case, McDonald demonstrates how control of the hawk is a substitute for control over his life.  His impulses, like the hawk’s, are natural, outside of his control, guileless and, therefore, innocent.  He is able to accept who he is by loving and understanding this creature with similarly uncontrollable passions.  There’s nothing wrong or right with those passions.  They just are.  Just as is McDonald’s hawk’s predatory nature.  Just as is her father’s sudden and unexplained death. Such is life, such is loss, so she must let it go, much as she and White release their hawks and watch them do the unthinkable. That is life and we must respect it.

I hope this review makes sense to readers.  It’s simply my attempt to explain this remarkable book to myself.  I look forward to reading critical reviews to see what others think.

Thank you for reading–jgk.  

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