“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
“H is for Hawk” is 288 pages, published in 2014.
Winner, 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize
Winner, 2014 Costa Book of the Year and Biography Award
Author Bio: Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, and naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. She also worked as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge.
She is the author of a cultural history of falcons, titled Falcon, and three collections of poetry. As a professional falconer, she assisted with the management of raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia. Her memoir H Is for Hawk was published in 2014.
1. In the book’s opening pages, Helen 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. How does the taming of Mabel mirror Helen’s own journey of healing and self-discovery?
3. 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?
4. 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?
5. 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?
6. 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?
7. In what way does H is for Hawk differentiate itself from other noted memoirs about grief, works of nature writing and biographies?
8. What new passions or obsessions have you delved into after experiencing a great loss?