Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

“Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book, H Is for Hawk, reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date March 08, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2473-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date March 03, 2015
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2341-1
  • Dimensions 95.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $26.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date March 03, 2015
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9167-0
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

One of the New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of the Year

A Best Book of the Year: TIME, NPR, O, The Oprah Magazine, Vogue, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, Miami Herald, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Star Tribune, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Slate, Shelf Awareness, Book Riot

When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood&mdashshe’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

Praise

“Breathtaking . . . Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence—and her own—with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering.” —Vicki Constantine Croke, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book, H Is for Hawk, reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times

“One of a kind . . . Macdonald is a poet, her language rich and taut. . . . As she descends into a wild, nearly mad connection with her hawk, her words keep powerful track. . . . [She] brings her observer’s eye and poet’s voice to the universal experience of sorrow and loss.” —Barbara Brotman, Chicago Tribune

“Captivating and beautifully written, it’s a meditation on the bond between beasts and humans and the pain and beauty of being alive.” —People (Book of the Week)

“One of the loveliest things you’ll read this year . . . You’ll never see a bird overhead the same way again. A-” —Jason Sheeler, Entertainment Weekly

“Had there been an award for the best new book that defies every genre, I imagine it would have won that too. . . . Coherent, complete, and riveting, perhaps the finest nonfiction I read in the past year.” —Kathryn Schulz, New Yorker

“An elegantly written amalgam of nature writing, personal memoir, literary portrait and an examination of bereavement. . . . It illuminates unexpected things in unexpected ways.” —Guy Gavriel Kay, Washington Post

“To categorize this work as merely memoir, nature writing or spiritual writing would understate [Macdonald’s] achievement . . . her prose glows and burns.” —Karin Altenberg, Wall Street Journal

“Dazzling.” —Kate Guadagnino, Vogue

“[A] singular book that combines memoir and landscape, history and falconry . . . it is not like anything I’ve ever read . . . what Macdonald tells us so eloquently in her fine memoir [is] that transformation of our docile or resigned lives can be had if we only look up into the world.” —Susan Straight, Los Angeles Times

“The art of Macdonald’s book is in the way that she weaves together various kinds of falling apart—the way she loops one unraveling thread of meaning into another. . . . What’s lovely about [it] is the clarity with which she sees both the inner and outer worlds that she lives in.” —Caleb Crain, New York Review of Books

“Extraordinary . . . indelible . . . [it contains] one of the most memorable passages I’ve read this year, or for that matter this decade . . . Mabel is described so vividly she becomes almost physically present on the page.” —Lev Grossman, TIME

“One of the most riveting encounters between a human being and an animal ever written.” —Simon Worrall, National Geographic

“Assured, honest and raw . . . a soaring wonder of a book.” —Daneet Steffens, Boston Globe

“One of the best books about nature that I’ve ever read. Macdonald’s wonderful gift for language and her keen observations bring pleasure to every page.” —Karen Sandstrom, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The echoes of myth in Macdonald’s writing, however subtle and unobtrusive, lend her book an emotional weight usually reserved only for literature, and a grace only for poetry. But this is one of the book’s great achievements: to belong to several genres at once, and to succeed at all of them.” —Madeleine Larue, The Millions

“A unique and beautiful book with a searing emotional honesty, and descriptive language that is unparalleled in modern literature.” —Costa Book Award

“An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk. . . . Writing with breathless urgency . . . Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment. Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“In this profoundly inquiring and wholly enrapturing memoir, Macdonald exquisitely and unforgettably entwines misery and astonishment, elegy and natural history, human and hawk.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Unsparing, fierce . . . a superior accomplishment. There’s not a line here that rings false; every insight is hard won . . . Macdonald has found the ideal balance between art and truth.” —David Laskin, Seattle Times

“Gorgeous.” —Diane Rehm, The Diane Rehm Show

“A wonder both of nature and of meditative writing.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air with Terry Gross

“To read Helen Macdonald’s new memoir is to have every cell of your body awake and alive.” —Robin Young, Here and Now

“[With] sumptuously poetic prose . . . there is deft interplay between agony and ecstasy, elegy and rebirth, wildness and domesticity, alongside subtle reminders about the cruelty of nature and our necessary faith in humanity.” —Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[Macdonald’s] writing—about soil and weather, myth and history, pain and its slow easing—retains the qualities of [her hawk] Mabel’s wild heart, and the commanding scope and piercing accuracy of her hawk’s eye.” —Joanna Scutts, Newsday

“A triumph.” —Nick Willoughby, Salon

“A genre-busting dazzler of a book, worthy of the near-universal accolades that it’s received so far.” —Elisabeth Donnelly, Flavorwire

“Extraordinary . . . Macdonald elegantly weaves multitudinous and extremely complex issues into a single work of seamless prose.” —Lucy Scholes, The Daily Beast

“The hawk-book’s form is perfect. It prickles your skin the way nature can when you are surprised by an animal in your path. Some books are not books but visitations, and this one has crossed its share of thresholds before arriving here, to an impossible middle perch between wilderness and culture, past and present, life and death.” —Katy Waldman, Slate

“It sings. I couldn’t stop reading.” —Mark Haddon

H is for Hawk is a work of great spirit and wonder, illuminated equally by terror and desire. Each beautiful sentence is capable of taking a reader’s breath. The book is built of feather and bone, intelligence and blood, and a vulnerability so profound as to conjure that vulnerability’s shadow, which is the great power of honesty. It is not just a definitive work on falconry; it is a definitive work on humanity, and all that can and cannot be possessed.” —Rick Bass

“A lovely touching book about a young woman grieving over the death of her father becoming rejuvenated by training one of the roughest, most difficult creatures in the heavens, the goshawk.” —Jim Harrison

“In addition to being an excellent memoir of loss and grief, H is for Hawk is a wonderful exploration of how birds of prey can function as metaphor to produce art and a roadmap for human lives. Read it and enrich your life.” —Dan O’Brien

“Rich with the poetry of ideation, the narrative flows through the author’s deeply textured story of personal loss like a mountain wind, swirling seamlessly through fields of literature, biology, natural history, and the art of hunting with hawks. Readers might do well to absorb this book a bite at a time—but be prepared for a full meal.” —Lynn Schooler

“A beautiful book on so many levels. Macdonald fearlessly probes each facet of grief and traverses its wilderness to reach redemption. But most beautiful of all is the complex, layered bond that builds between her and Mabel, her hawk. Who would have guessed that human and bird could share so much?” —Jan DeBlieu

“My favorite book, reincarnated: If you ever wondered what would happen if Sam from My Side of the Mountain grew up, loved, ached, and discovered himself in the heart of an ugly creature, you’ll find the answer in H is for Hawk. ‘The wild can be human work,’ Hawk tells us, which is one reason you’ll have to buy a copy—I’m never lending mine.” —Christopher McDougall

“In this elegant synthesis of memoir and literary sleuthing . . . Macdonald describes in beautiful, thoughtful prose how she comes to terms with death in new and startling ways.” —Publishers Weekly

“A dazzling piece of work: deeply affecting, utterly fascinating and blazing with love . . . a deeply human work shot through, like cloth of gold, with intelligence and compassion—an exemplar of the mysterious alchemy by which suffering can be transmuted into beauty. I will be surprised if a better book than H is for Hawk is published this year.” —Melissa Harrison, Financial Times

“More than any other writer I know, including her beloved [T.H.] White, Macdonald is able to summon the mental world of a bird of prey . . . she extends the boundaries of nature writing. As a naturalist she has somehow acquired her bird’s laser-like visual acuity. As a writer she combines a lexicographer’s pleasure in words as carefully curated objects with an inventive passion for new words or for ways of releasing fresh effects from the old stock. . . . Macdonald looks set to revive the genre.” —Mark Cocker, Guardian

“A talon-sharp memoir that will thrill and chill you to the bone . . . Macdonald has just the right blend of the scientist and the poet, of observing on the one hand and feeling on the other.” —Craig Brown, Daily Mail

“What [Macdonald] has achieved is a very rare thing in literature—a completely realistic account of a human relationship with animal consciousness. . . . Her training of Mabel has the suspense and tension of the here and now. You are gripped by the slightest movement, by the turn of every feather. It is a soaring performance and Mabel is the star.” —John Carey, Sunday Times

“A well-wrought book, one part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world and one part literary meditation . . . lit with flashes of grace, a grace that sweeps down to the reader to hold her wrist tight with beautiful, terrible claws. The discovery of the season.” —Erica Wagner, Economist

“The magnificent H is for Hawk [has] grabbed me by its talons . . . [it’s] nature writing, but not as you know it. Astounding.” —Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

“This beautiful book is at once heartfelt and clever in the way it mixes elegy with celebration: elegy for a father lost, celebration of a hawk found – and in the finding also a celebration of countryside, forbears of one kind and another, life-in-death. At a time of very distinguished writing about the relationship between human kind and the environment, it is immediately pre-eminent.” —Andrew Motion

“A deep, dark work of terrible beauty that will open fissures in the stoniest heart. . . . Macdonald is a survivor . . . she has produced one of the most eloquent accounts of bereavement you could hope to read . . . A grief memoir with wings.” —The Bookseller

“A book made from the heart that goes to the heart . . . It combines old and new nature and human nature with great originality. No one who has looked up to see a bird of prey cross the sky could read it and not have their life shifted.” —Tim Dee, author of The Running Sky

“The most magical book I have ever read.” —Olivia Laing

Awards

Winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction
Winner of the Costa Book Award
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award
Finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction
A Bookseller and Waterstones Book of the Month
One of O, The Oprah Magazine‘s 10 Best Books of the Year

Reading Group Guide

1. In the book’s opening pages, Macdonald writes, “The wild can be human work” (p. 8). She wrote this sentence to explain how British goshawks were literally brought back from extinction by falconers who imported birds from the continent that were lost or released and subsequently bred. What other meanings could this line have? What does this tell us about the kind of narrator Helen will be?

2. Helen writes about a time when she was nine and impatient to see hawks. Her father explained, “[W]hen you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient” (p. 10). How well is Helen served by this advice throughout the book?

3. Macdonald was eight years old when she first reads T. H. White’s The Goshawk, a book that proves a formative experience. She initially dislikes the book (p. 30): “Why would a grown-up write about not being able to do something?” How does Macdonald’s views on White’s book evolve over time?

4. “The book you are reading is my story,” Macdonald writes. “It is not a biography of Terence Hanbury White. But White is a part of my story all the same. I have to write about him because he was there” (p. 38). What does Macdonald mean? How does understanding White’s life inform her own journey? How does our understanding of White’s book help us understand her own?

5. When Macdonald arranges to buy her hawk, she’s initially shown the wrong bird. When the correct bird appears, she notes, “I looked into her eyes and saw something blank and crazy in her stare. . . . This isn’t my hawk” (p. 55). Why does Macdonald change her mind?

6. Macdonald writes, “What we see in the lives of animals are lessons we’ve learned from the world” (p. 60). Through closely observing her hawk’s life, what lessons does Helen ultimately learn from the world?

7. When Macdonald first trains her hawk to become accustomed to her presence, she explains that “making yourself disappear is the greatest skill in the world” (p. 68). Later, Macdonald says about being thrilled that her hawk has forgotten she’s there because it’s a sign of acceptance: “But there was a deeper, darker thrill. It was that I had been forgotten” (p. 73). Why does this excite Macdonald?

8. After living several days with her hawk in her flat, Macdonald observes, “I was turning into a hawk” (p. 85). What does Macdonald mean? How does she explain her “transformation”?

9. Macdonald goes through various emotional stages training her hawk. On one particular day, within a couple hours she goes from feeling like a “beneficent figure” to “the worst falconer in the history of the world.” Ultimately, she realizes, “I have lost the ability to disappear” (p. 93). How critical was this loss at this stage of her training? How important of a turning point is this for Macdonald?

10. A big step in Macdonald’s hawk training is “walking” Mabel in public. Macdonald fears what Mabel’s encounter with people will be like: “They are things to shun, to fear, to turn from, shielding my hawk” (p. 100). Is Macdonald also shielding herself? Why or why not?

1. Macdonald writes that each picture her father took was “a record, a testament, a bulwark against forgetting, against nothingness, against death” (p. 71). Later, she looks just once at the last photo her father took before he died. “[A]n empty London street . . . a wall tipped sideways from the vertical and running into the distance; a vanishing point of sallow, stormy sky.” It is a photo that she can “never stop seeing” (p. 106). Does Macdonald’s memory of this photo serve as a bulwark against forgetting her father? Or against her father’s death?

12. Macdonald cuts between her attempts to train Mabel with T. H. White’s attempts to train his goshawk. How much kinship does she see in their respective journeys? What are the similarities in their training routines? What are their differences?

13. Macdonald writes about herself, “We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost” (p. 129). Later, she writes about White, “sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost, and sometimes we take it upon ourselves to burn them to ashes” (p. 130). What is Macdonald’s reckoning? White’s? How do their respective hawks help or hinder their respective reckonings?

14. As Macdonald continues with Mabel’s training, she explains, “I felt incomplete unless the hawk was sitting on my hand: we were parts of each other. Grief and the hawk had conspired to this strangeness” (p. 135). How great a role does grief play in making Macdonald feel complete with Mabel?

15. At key points in the narrative, Macdonald is able to rely on various friends to help her through a specific emotional challenge or with Mabel’s training. How important is human friendship to Macdonald as she travels through her grief? Is it more of a challenge for her to recognize human contributions to her healing than Mabel’s? Why or why not?

16. Macdonald quotes White from his dream diary, “Need to excel in order to be loved.” Then she adds, “But there is an unspoken coda to that sentence. What happens if you excel at something and discover you are still unloved?” (p. 146) How much does this sentence pertain to White? Macdonald? Are White and Macdonald unloved, or are they incapable of acknowledging love?

17. Macdonald writes that falconry is not, as she quotes Professor Tom Cade, “high-intensity birdwatching” but rather “more like gambling.” She says, “You feel safe because you are entirely at the world’s mercy” (p. 177). What does Macdonald mean? Does Macdonald ever reach a place of true emotional safety in the book?

18. On one of Mabel’s hunting trips, she catches a pheasant. “I’m amazed,” Macdonald writes, and then is overcome with a strong maternal sense while she helps pluck feathers from Mabel’s catch. “she becomes a child. . . . A baby hawk that’s just worked out who she is” (p. 184). How much is Macdonald responsible for Mabel working out who she is? How responsible is Mabel for Macdonald working out who she is?

19. Macdonald writes, “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human” (p. 195). What does Macdonald mean? How far to the edge does Macdonald go?

20. Macdonald writes about reading White’s The Sword and The Stone, “When I was small I thought turning into a hawk would be a magical thing. . . . But now the lesson was killing me. It was not at all the same” (p. 212). What truths does Macdonald realize about turning into a hawk? What is the most painful and damaging part of turning into a hawk for Macdonald?

21. After her father’s memorial service, Macdonald thinks about her decision to “flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so.” Macdonald realizes that this was “a beguiling but dangerous lie” that inevitably harmed Mabel. “I’d fled to become a hawk, but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me” (p. 218). How much responsibility does Macdonald bear for religiously following her nature books’ advice? Is Macdonald expressing enough empathy for her decisions?

22. Macdonald realizes after having trained Mabel that “I love Mabel, but what passes between us is not human” (p. 223). What has passed between Macdonald and Mabel? If it’s not human, what is it?

23. When molting season arrives, Macdonald arranges for a spare aviary to accommodate Mabel at a friend’s house some distance away. There’s an earthquake the night before she drops her off. A panicked Macdonald checks on Mabel, thinking Mabel will be as terrified as she is. Instead, she finds Mabel calm and asleep. “I had thought the world was ending, but my hawk had saved me again, and all the terror was gone” (p. 278). Has Mabel truly saved Macdonald in this moment? At this stage in their relationship, how much credit does Macdonald deserve for saving herself?

24. When Macdonald says goodbye to Mabel, she tells her she’ll miss her. “No answer can come, and there is nothing to explain” (p. 279). Is Macdonald being truthful when she says there is nothing to explain in this moment? How will Macdonald adjust to life without Mabel in her daily care?

25. Macdonald reveals at the end of her acknowledgments page that Mabel succumbed to a sudden, untreatable infection after the main events in her book. Is Helen ready for a life without Mabel? Why or why not?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

The Goshawk and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White; The Peregrine by J. A. Baker; A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines; The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes by Peter Matthiessen; The Bird Artist by Howard Norman; Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds by Olivia Gentile