H Is for Hawk Summary

H Is for Hawk is a memoir about the author’s experiences training a goshawk while grieving her father’s death.

  • After her father dies suddenly, Helen Macdonald, an English historian and falconer, begins training a young goshawk named Mabel.
  • Macdonald interweaves her own story with that of troubled author T. H. White, whose book The Goshawk recounts his struggle to train his own hawk in the 1930s.
  • Through flying Mabel, Macdonald initially retreats from the world but ultimately begins to heal from her grief, regaining a sense of trust and belonging as her bond with the goshawk grows.

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Last Updated on August 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1380

Author Helen Macdonald goes to a forest northeast of Cambridge to watch for goshawks. Macdonald is an academic, and she loves this part of the country because it is wild and rich with history. After waiting and watching, Macdonald sees male and female goshawks circling each other in the air;...

(The entire section contains 1380 words.)

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Author Helen Macdonald goes to a forest northeast of Cambridge to watch for goshawks. Macdonald is an academic, and she loves this part of the country because it is wild and rich with history. After waiting and watching, Macdonald sees male and female goshawks circling each other in the air; then they disappear. She has a memory of birdwatching with her father and him explaining to her for the first time the concept of “patience.”

Three weeks later, Macdonald receives a call from her mother: her father has died. In a blur of grief, she goes to London, attends the funeral, and picks up her father’s car from the impound lot. Macdonald returns to Cambridge, has a brief and unsuccessful romance with a man who leaves her when he discovers the depth of her grief, and dreams about hawks. It rains heavily.

Macdonald was twelve years old when she first saw falconers at work flying their goshawks, and this experience impacted her tremendously; she goes on to become a falconer herself. After her father’s death, Macdonald decides to reach out to a hawk breeder in Northern Ireland who has one young goshawk left. She plans to drive to fetch the hawk, feeling that it somehow “chose” her. As a child, she was obsessed with birds of prey and fascinated by the archaic world of falconry; in particular, she recalls reading T. H. White’s The Goshawk when she was eight. She writes that she is “haunted” by White and describes his unhappy childhood and troubled adulthood as a teacher, writer, and closeted gay man in 1930s England.

Along with her friend Christina, Macdonald arrives in Scotland, where she has arranged to meet the breeder and pick up the hawk. The breeder has two goshawks with him; one is for another buyer. Macdonald asks if she can have the smaller hawk instead of the one originally intended for her, as she feels an instant connection with her. The breeder is taken aback, but he says yes. Macdonald is nervous the whole drive home, fretting over the hawk in the box. When she brings the hawk into her house perched on her fist, she feels like something missing has returned. That night she dreams of her father as a boy, standing in a London bombsite and pointing at an airplane passing silently overhead.

Over the next few days, Macdonald begins the slow process of teaching the hawk to trust her: she must sit very still and let the hawk adjust to her surroundings. The stillness and silence allows Macdonald time to think about her father, his life, and his death. Macdonald marvels at the beauty of the bird and all her innate reflexes and instincts, and the hawk eats from Macdonald’s fist for the first time—a milestone in falconry—while Macdonald and Christina are watching TV. Macdonald decides to name her hawk Mabel.

While recounting T. H. White’s struggle to tame his own goshawk, Gos, Macdonald experiences some of her own. Overall, she is doing much better than White did, because she has a better understanding of how to train a goshawk with love and patience. Soon, it is time for Macdonald to take Mabel out of the house for the first time and introduce her to new stimuli. This is a stressful process, but over the course of a few days, it becomes easier. Mabel is a fast learner: she learns how to jump onto Macdonald’s fist, how to fly short distances, and even how to play.

Mabel has reached her flying weight, so Macdonald takes her to a field at the college to begin flying. Soon, Macdonald reflects, she will no longer have a home at Cambridge, as her job as a researcher there is coming to an end. Mabel seems to know just what to do, and Macdonald feels a tinge of happiness for the first time since her father died. With Christina’s help, Mabel is soon able to fly greater distances. When Mabel struggles, Macdonald worries it is because the hawk can tell something is “wrong” with her, as if the hawk can sense her grief over her father’s death. 

Macdonald feels clumsy and broken throughout her day-to-day life, but never with Mabel. Finally, it is time to put a bell and a tiny radio transmitter on Mabel and let her fly further. Although she struggles at first, Mabel eventually comes right back to Macdonald. For the hawk’s sake, Macdonald resolves to be happier, to make herself more “appealing” to Mabel.

Macdonald flies Mabel regularly on a hill outside Cambridge, and she knows that soon it will be time for Mabel to fly free. She recounts how White struggled with Gos and eventually lost him. While Macdonald has little trust in the world, she trusts and believes in Mabel. After a stressful first day, Mabel flies free and returns to Macdonald.

While out on the hill, Mabel begins to regularly enter yarak, which means that she wants to hunt and kill. Macdonald’s feelings about the blood and death inherent in hunting with a goshawk are complicated, but most of all, she wants to see Mabel succeed. When Mabel kills her first pheasant, Macdonald feels a deep maternal pride. She cries for the cycles of life and death, for her father, and for her child self.

After her time at the college is officially over, Macdonald moves into a friend’s house in the suburbs, on loan to her while her friend travels. It is a family home, and Macdonald feels awkward and unwanted in such a space, so she spends as much time as possible outside with Mabel. Macdonald reflects upon the violent legacy of falconry and how it has been employed by dictators and the ruling classes in order to naturalize violence and oppression. She laments the fact that these human interpretations have so little to do with the reality of nature and the goshawk itself. White himself had fascist sympathies and believed in the necessity of violent revolution, and he positioned himself as being “at war” with his goshawk.

At her friend Stuart’s invitation, Macdonald brings Mabel to a country fair. Chatting with her fellow falconers, she marvels at how the social landscape of falconry has changed: it is no longer solely the territory of the elite. Later, Macdonald realizes that her isolation, and her desire to become more like a hawk herself, has impacted her ability to heal from her grief.

Two days before the memorial service for her father, Mabel accidentally slashes Macdonald in the face during a hunt; afterward, Macdonald goes home and finally writes the eulogy she has been struggling to produce. At the service, she tells a story of her father, who was a photographer, taking a photo of a new United States Air Force plane as a boy. Macdonald feels love and reassurance after the service, thinking of all the people who loved her father and realizing that community with other human beings can help her to heal.

Nevertheless, Macdonald continues to feel sad, numb, and alone. She sees a doctor and begins taking SSRIs, hoping the medication will help with her depression but not inhibit her ability to care for and train Mabel. As winter approaches, Mabel seems more “human” to Macdonald, and their bond feels secure.

Macdonald and her mother spend Christmas together with a friend of Macdonald’s and his family in Maine. Back at her mother’s home, Macdonald flies Mabel across the fields, feeling exhilarated. She recognizes how much of her grief for her father is simply a form of love.

Macdonald moves back to Cambridge with Mabel; their companionship is trusting and loving. One night, Macdonald is awoken by an earthquake and is relieved to find that Mabel was not frightened by it, even though the rest of the neighborhood was.

Spring comes and, along with it, Mabel’s moulting season—which means that Mabel must spend time isolated in an aviary. Macdonald brings Mabel to a spare aviary offered by a friend and thinks about how her goshawk’s plumage will change while Macdonald is away. Reflecting on the way that “Everything changes. Everything moves,” Macdonald says goodbye to the hawk.

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