So, you are a middle-aged woman, single, no children. You are English. Your job as a researcher and teacher at Cambridge University may not be renewed. If you lose your job, you lose your apartment on campus. Then your beloved father dies suddenly. You are disconsolate. What do you do?
Well, if you are Helen MacDonald, you decide to train a goshawk. You bring an untamed raptor, a predator with a formidable beak and blade-sharp talons, to live with you in your university digs. What happens is the story that MacDonald tells in her 2014 memoir H is for Hawk.
I admire MacDonald’s ability to weave so many strands of her life into this book. She talks about falconry replete with technical terms and names for equipment, such as creance, jess, hood. She paints a picture of her photojournalist father and their close relationship. She shows how her grief clouds her judgment. She intertwines an account of author T.H.White’s attempt to train a goshawk. (White wrote The Sword in the Stone, the basis for the play Camelot.) She describes the topology, the trees, shrubs, flowers and fields where she flies her hawk. And she uses her academic expertise in English literature to describe her surroundings, using archaic words like bosky for wooded and ley for lea, meaning meadow.
Helen MacDonald challenges you to accept all of her. She is a woman of many, many parts and it’s up to you to put it together. I wonder if some editor didn’t say, “Helen, why don’t you leave out all that stuff about T.H.White and his uncertainty with sexual orientation and sadism?” “Why don’t you use regular words rather than archaic words that people have to look up?” “Why don’t you change the book title so that it doesn’t sound like a Sue Grafton murder mystery?” MacDonald seems the kind of person who’d shrug and say, “Because.”
Boy, did I learn a lot about goshawks and the long history of using them to hunt. More than that, I could feel how MacDonald feels. When she first sees her bird, she writes, “The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine [an archaic term for porcupine]. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumped sideway.”
MacDonald becomes obsessed with the process of taming and training this bird that she calls Mabel. In MacDonald’s small rental, the bird poops, the technical word is mute, wherever she wants. She eats bits and pieces of raw meat. Her table manners are atrocious.
Helen’s obsession, and the intense focus necessary to taming a hawk, temporarily distract her from her grief. Throughout, there’s a part of her that realizes that she may be spinning into madness, but the needs of the hawk are all consuming. “I’d instructed my friends to leave me alone. I’d filled the freezer with hawk food and unplugged the phone. I was hermit with hawk in a darkened room with books on three walls, a faded Afghan rug and a sofa of stained yellow velvet.”
As she gains the bird’s trust, MacDonald takes her out and flies her. It is heart racing, both because she is on the ground, dashing through stubbly fields and crashing through thickets while trying to keep the flying bird in sight and also because she can never be absolutely sure that Mabel will come back.
Eventually, she realizes that she needs to care for herself psychologically. Her friends help. Her mother visits. She sees a doctor. She takes meds. Her life achieves a sort of balance.
The writing in this book is glittering. It is nature writing. It is psychological writing. It soars with literary flair. “Today I walked up to the crest of a hill on a freezing, smoky afternoon, the whole Cambridgeshire countryside laid out in front in woods and fields and copses beneath us, all bosky and bright with golden sunshine.” It is a joy to read. I got a chuckle at her description of a friend’s falcon. “He was watching the Spitfire [WWII fighter plane] overhead with professional curiosity.”
I am like Helen MacDonald in having expertise and interests in numerous areas. As a Chinese, I have studied Chinese history and Asian art. I am interested in the Chinese-American experience. As a physician, I keep up with articles in medicine and science. I love tennis and opera and crossword puzzles. And, like her, I write.
Helen and I differ in our response to grief only in degree. My dad had a stroke three years before his death at age 90. My heart spasmed every time I saw him, an orthopedic surgeon, struggle to grasp a fork or a toothbrush in his stricken right hand. I have had my own health disappointments. Less than a year after I had my son, I needed a hysterectomy. At 33 years old, I lost the choice to have another child. Unlike Macdonald, however, I have never neglected health, hygiene or work.
Kind friends tell me I am disciplined. I call it a surfeit of superego. Still, I understand MacDonald’s need for distraction. As for me, I reread books: The Lord of the Rings, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I watch reruns: Murder, She Wrote, The Rockford Files and Night Court. And when those cut too close to my heart, I do crosswords.
These book reviews that I do reveal one or two aspects of my life at a time. I am in awe of Helen MacDonald’s courage —and organizational skills — to put everything out there, to challenge the reader to look up the archaic words, falconry terms and species names for plants and bushes, to follow her spiral into grief, to go from bird to sadist to friends and family and to fall in love with a goshawk.
Tell me: How have you coped with grief?