H Is For Hawk, Reviewed

We already posted on this book earlier this month, but there is no question it deserves more attention. This time the attention comes in the form of a book review at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s blog, All About Birds from an “insider” (at two levels, including lifelong falconer and someone who edits one of the leading magazine’s for bird-oriented readers):

H_is_for_Hawk_cover450-192x300By Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine

Last fall, a remarkable memoir called H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, took the United Kingdom by storm, winning two prestigious awards and rising to the top of the bestseller list. It’s just been released in the U.S. and promises to do the same here. Last fall, our own Living Birdmagazine published a review that highlighted Macdonald’s lyrical writing —but as a lifelong falconer I also give her high marks for providing a window into the minds of falconers and their birds.

On the surface, H is for Hawk is a falconry book chronicling the training of a Northern Goshawk, and yet it is so much more. It is a brilliantly written memoir of the darkest time in Helen Macdonald’s life, as she struggled to cope with the sudden death of her father, noted photographer Alisdair Macdonald. The two had been close her entire life. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of hiking through fields together, with binoculars hung around their necks, as she looked at birds and he at airplanes.

Macdonald was devastated by the sudden loss of her father, Alisdair Macdonald, with whom she had shared a love of nature as a child. Photo courtesy Helen Macdonald.

Macdonald was devastated by the sudden loss of her father, Alisdair Macdonald, with whom she had shared a love of nature as a child. Photo courtesy Helen Macdonald.

What makes H is for Hawk special is how Helen Macdonald chose to deal with the grief she felt after her father’s death—by dropping out of human society and spending months alone, training and hunting with a hawk. This is not as strange as it might sound to a non-falconer. She had been working with raptors since childhood and was already an accomplished falconer. She knew that the kind of concentration required to train a hawk would be the best possible distraction for her. What is interesting is her choice of bird: a goshawk—one of the wildest, most difficult to train of raptors.

Macdonald is fascinated by falconry’s ancient roots, and she covers its history and lore excellently in parts of H is for Hawk and an earlier book, Falcon. It’s a fascination I share. As a 12-year-old, the first book I ever read about falconry was a translation of De Arte Venandi cum Avibus(On the Art of Hunting with Birds), by 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. It felt almost like Frederick was speaking to me from across the centuries, guiding me in my earliest falconry endeavors. Many years later, I traveled across Italy, visiting important Frederick II sites—where he was born, where he lived at various times, where he died—and wrote about the experience in my book Falcon Fever. I ended my journey at the cathedral in Palermo, Sicily, leaving a pair of my Peregrine Falcon’s bells at the foot of Frederick’s sarcophagus—alongside the fresh flowers that people still leave there all these centuries later…

Read the whole book review here.

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