H Is For Hawk
Author: Helen Macdonald
Publisher: Grove Press (2014)
Genre: Memoir
Hardcover Edition: 283 pages
Source: Personal copy

Reading Helen Macdonald’s book is like flying with a goshawk––beautiful, terrifying, dynamic. She takes readers tramping the English countryside, tells us the names of the grasses, enables us to see the colors of the chalk formations, the bright of a cock peasant in “bronze and bottle green, all rackety tail and sharp primaries”, the dreary tangled brambles and hedges. We soar above it with Mable the goshawk Ms. Macdonald is training.

She is reeling with grief after the loss of her father. She is lonely and determined. Sometimes she feels like she is “wading through treacle.” Her vocabulary is so learned and vivid that a dictionary is helpful.

In tuning herself and the reader to the natural world, patience is learned at several levels and in different keys. This book is unique in my reading experience and in its excellence. It is the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, named Costa Book of the Year, and one of 10 best books by the New York Times Book Review. She writes in a manner that allows the reader to feel the viciousness of a hawk, and hence, the danger. But the life and death struggle the predator engages in is not the whole of the story. Instead there is tenderness, caring, wariness and learning to name a few of the emotions aroused by this experience.

Ms Macdonald’s prose is most beautiful. Her poetry is next on my list. She uses history, medieval falconry and the work of T. H. White to guide her study and harness her obsession. The clarity she achieves is so often like watching through clean glass.

You can see a photo of Mabel in all her frightening glory at www.allaboutbirds.org in a review of Macdonald’s book by Tim Gallagher from March 3, 2015. Mabel is remarkable. Macdonald’s book is beyond remarkable. It is a not-to-be-missed reading experience if you like nonfaiction stories of bravery, and reading about the natural world. You don’t need an interest in hawks to pick up this book.

All you need is to respond to the thrill of learning and an appreciation of a talented writer telling a true story. ( I say it is true because as a child I saw the bright beauty of pheasants in the wild. I have never forgotten the sight and still consider it one of the most beautiful seen in my lifetime. I wonder if Ms. Macdonald thinks the same, but then she has seen Mabel.) This is the best book I’ve read in a very long time. It pierces the heart and soul. The reader will feel Mabel’s sharp yellow talons and the beating of Ms. Macdonald’s strong heart.


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