H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

We’ve been neglecting our book club all summer but I finally got around to reading March’s book club book and it is beautiful.

H is for Hawk tells three stories: the author’s recovery from the grief of her father’s sudden death, her year long journey in training a goshawk, and her relationship with T. H. White, writer of The Goshawk, The Sword in the Stone, and The Once and future King. I like the trio storytelling and how well she weaves it together. I did a baby version of that integration in weaving the story of my evolution as a sex worker and my growing relationship with my partner together so my own experience trying to fit two stories to each other in a way that makes sense helps me appreciate the skill with which MacDonald ties her life to her hawk Mabel and to a long dead author.

The story is autobiographical and heavily influenced by the words and writing style of her first and favorite authors: 19th century falconers. She draws on archaic terminology which enthralls me; I love encountering words I’ve never seen before, beautiful adjectives that settle into context for my appreciation and betterment. She writes with a flowing, almost stream of consciousness style but well structured, as it should be since she’s a professor of literature. I started and nearly finished it in one beautiful sunny day out at the cabin, taking frequent breaks to refill my drink, grab a snack, or watch my friends and family playing on the lawn. It’s a quick read, beautiful, and exquisitely mournful.

My most meaningful and lasting takeaway was that from now on, before I read a famous work, I want to know about the author. When we read The Sirens of Titan, one of our book club members had a near encyclopedic knowledge of the author and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book. Hawk tells the story of T. H. White, a tortured closeted homosexual and sadist who refused to use corporal punishment on his students because he knew he would enjoy it.

MacDonal is first introduced to White through his book The Goshawk in which he tells the story of the first hawk he ever tried to train. I knew nothing of hawking before this book but MacDonald had been into hawking for years before she read this book as a child and cried at the cruelty White unintentionally inflicted on his hawk. She hated the book but her insatiable interest in books about falconry lead her to read it several more times growing up and when her father died, the deep grief she felt drew her to this story.

I can’t adequately summarize the book partly because I haven’t read it and partly because MacDonald filled her commentary on his story with her own feelings about her father and her hawk and a huge amount of biographical knowledge gleaned from hours and hours studying his letters and journals. I now want to read The Sword in the Stone because I know about the author, how he wished he could be wise and content like Merlyn and how he put aspects of himself in all the characters. I want to read the story, enriched by my knowledge of the author, and appreciate it all the more. I’ll happily read anything else MacDonald publishes, fiction or otherwise, because knowing her makes her work more alive, more real, more interesting.

Overall, H is for Hawk is a beautifully written, hopeful yet tragic, poignant story that deserves its place near the top of any reading list.