A beautifully written memoir about Macdonald training a goshawk after the sudden death of her beloved father, partly but not entirely as a distraction from her grief. The goshawk was not her first bird of prey; as a little girl she was obsessed with T. H. White’s (The Once and Future King) odd memoir The Goshawk, in which he tries to train a goshawk and does everything wrong. She becomes a falconer as a result, determined to do better. Not that that would be hard. White was a lot better a writing than falconry.

White and his book figure prominently in Macdonald’s book, as they were much on her mind as she trained her own goshawk. I thought this was well-integrated and interesting, but I’d already read The Goshawk, The Once and Future King is one of my two favorite King Arthur books and the first part, The Sword in the Stone, was a formative book of my childhood, and my favorite scene in it was the one where the young Arthur is transformed into a hawk – a merlin – by Merlyn. I’m not sure how it would come across to someone without any previous knowledge of or interest in White. On the other hand, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in memoirs, interactions with the natural world, nature writing, or grief regardless of their interest in falconry, so maybe that doesn’t matter.

The Goshawk is much more about White himself than it is about his hawk; H is for Hawk is also more about Macdonald than about her hawk, but she's more interested in her goshawk as an animal of a particular type, with its own personality, than White is. While his goshawk does come through as a personality, to White it's more a representation of ideas. He's trying to engage in an epic spiritual struggle, with the hawk variously as an opponent to be defeated, a object of desire to be seduced, etc. It's not really surprising that it didn't end well. He's using the training of his hawk as a way to go further inward, into himself. Macdonald is using it to go outward, away from herself (though she ends up facing herself whether she wants to or not), and that plus her pre-existing knowledge and experience means that her relationship with her bird is much less adversarial and more kind.

No harm comes to Macdonald’s goshawk, but she describes how White harmed his out of ignorance of how to train a falcon. He didn’t hit it or anything like that, but his training methods were damaging and may have led to its death – it escapes him, but probably did not survive long in the wild. Also, obviously the book contains hunting.

H Is for Hawk

The Goshawk: With a new foreword by Helen Macdonald

The Once and Future King by T. H. White
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