Monday, May 11, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Falconry tests the endurance and sanity of anyone keen to attempt the sport. Author T. H. White was ill-prepared for his first attempt. Over 70 years later, Helen Macdonald was more experienced and realistic when she acquired a goshawk. Still, her experienced included self-doubt and despair, as well as self-discovery, as she recounts in H is for Hawk.

Just as it helps to read Middlemarch by George Eliot before reading My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, having read The Goshawk by White will enrich anyone's reading of Macdonald's book. Thankfully for me, reading H is for Hawk also explained much of what puzzled me about The Goshawk.

Of course, you are more likely to have read Middlemarch than The Goshawk, as Eliot is still fashionable and White is mostly forgotten. He was most popular in the mid-twentieth century when children were reading The Sword in the Stone and their parents were reading The Once and Future King. In the 1960s, his Arthurian tales were source materials for a Disney animated film and the broadway musical Camelot.

Luckily for all, you do not have to have read White's book before reading Macdonald's, as she liberally recounts and quotes sections of it as she describes her experiences with Mabel, a young goshawk that she acquired from a breeder in Ireland and brought to her home near Cambridge to train to hunt. Like White, she take's her bird on walks through field and forest and frets over how much it weighs. For the benefit of good reading, Macdonald did not stick to White's narrative as a template for hers, and her prose flows more pleasingly.

Mead's book My Life in Middlemarch is an easier book to compare with Macdonald's title. Both mix these elements:

  • Memoir of the author
  • Biography of famous author
  • Story of a famous book
  • Observations about English history and culture

To this formula, Macdonald adds a dose of natural history, letting readers know much about hawks and falconry. The result is a great book that keeps the reader engaged.

Now I should try So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan, another book in which a reader recounts her relationship with a book.

Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. Grove Press, 2014. 300p. ISBN 9780802123411.

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