H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

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Chapters 11–12 Summary

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Chapter 11: Leaving Home

For the first time, Macdonald takes Mabel out in public. They walk slowly through the park, Mabel perched on Macdonald’s fist, and Macdonald feels that the world around her is surreal. Mabel is frightened of the people walking by, and she bates; Macdonald feels a general sense of anger toward all the people around her. This anger is lessened when she has a friendly interaction with a bicyclist on the street.

The next time they go out, Mabel is still afraid, but she is also more curious. She doesn’t like large dogs, but she is interested in smaller dogs as potential prey. After some time, Mabel relaxes enough to eat off of Macdonald’s fist. Macdonald feels like she is also seeing the world for the first time. When Mabel sees a pigeon fly into a tree, the hawk is fascinated, “as if all her weapons systems were suddenly engaged”; the hawk has discovered her own innate hunting instincts.

White didn’t take things slowly with Gos, the way one is supposed to while training a hawk; instead, he brought Gos with him everywhere. Macdonald sees a similarity between the way White grew up, constantly afraid, and the way he raised Gos—both were forced to bear their fright and insecurity. White spent many long days and nights on solitary walks with Gos. In the 1930s, Macdonald writes, nighttime walking tours were a popular pastime in the English countryside, with an entire industry devoted to them. The people taking these walking tours were seeking a “mystical communion with the land”—they wanted to connect with an imagined version of England’s past, one that felt all the more appealing in the frightening, uncertain time between the wars. White shared in this general mood, a conservative response to the collective trauma of World War I and looming new threats from abroad.

White’s visit to Chapel Green, a nearby ruin, was Macdonald’s favorite part of The Goshawk when she was young; it was this in this section of the book that she felt a kinship with White. She understood his desire to slip into another time, to commune with “something lost and forgotten.”

Macdonald remembers that she borrowed a birdwatching telescope from her father and never gave it back. She also remembers the first time her father’s death became truly real to her, at the train station with her mother and brother a day or so after her father died. When Macdonald realized she would never see her father again, she shouted No. Her family held each other and wept. The last photographs her father took were still on his camera roll at the hospital, one of an empty London street at a low, blurred angle. She cannot forget this image.

Chapter 12: Outlaws

Using a dead chick as a bribe, Macdonald starts teaching Mabel how to jump from the perch to Macdonald’s fist. It is a struggle, but eventually they succeed. The impact of the collision, of hawk to fist, makes Macdonald feel alive. Recently, however, she has been feeling exhausted. Her constant vigilance during her walks with Mabel has been draining her. As Mabel grows tamer, Macdonald feels she is growing wilder, more feral. She fears the people around her when they are out walking, and she thinks that Mabel can sense her fear. Then, eventually, people they come across on their walks start ignoring them—it appears that the woman and the hawk have become commonplace. Macdonald wonders if she and Mabel have become invisible.

Then she realizes that of course people can see them—it’s mostly a question of who is...

(This entire section contains 1178 words.)

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brave enough to really look. On one of their walks Macdonald meets Kanat, a kind man from Kazakhstan who is familiar with falconry, and they chat. On another occasion, Macdonald chats with a handsome cyclist from Mexico who is excited to see a hawk up close. Macdonald notices that everyone who wants to engage with them is an outsider of some sort. Reflecting that she and Mabel are themselves outsiders, Macdonald feels ashamed of her country’s desire to overlook anything unusual.

One day, Mabel flies about four feet, from the back of a chair to Macdonald’s fist. Macdonald is excited by this milestone and decides to take Mabel on a walk to visit a friend. The friend’s husband answers the door, and they chat about the hawk. The man makes a sexist remark about Mabel’s temperament, suggesting that she gets along with Macdonald because they’re both female. Furious, Macdonald storms home to read what men have written about female goshawks in the past.

Reading her falconry books, Macdonald finds that the gendered language men have used to describe female goshawks is offensive and often inaccurate. Victorian falconers describe the hawks as “moody,” “sulky,” “irrational.” It’s as if the hawks are hormonal women, Macdonald thinks. These male falconers didn’t understand that the hawks were only responding to their treatment, to the men’s own behavior; instead, they pathologized their hawks. Elizabethan and Jacobean falconers, however, describe female hawks as “stately” and temperate companions. Unlike other animals kept by people, Macdonald says, hawks have never truly been domesticated, so they remain symbols of the wild—as well as of “things that need to be mastered and tamed.”

In the living room, Mabel and Macdonald play with balled-up pieces of paper and a magazine rolled into a tube, and Macdonald is shocked. She didn’t know that goshawks played, and she wonders sadly if no one has ever thought to play with them before.

White wrote that he had always loved the underdogs and the seemingly unlovable, and that this was why he loved Gos. Macdonald says that one could read The Goshawk as an expression of desire for the queer kinship that was so lacking in White’s life. She wonders if his sense of fellowship with other falconers throughout history was a way of understanding himself as a gay man: as a falconer, he was a member of a small, select group of men who couldn’t help but feel a love that society considered abnormal. 

Trained hawks, Macdonald says, appear to conjure history: “History collapses when you hold a hawk.” But history doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and falconry conjures a specific history of class and status. Whose history are you participating in when you become a falconer, she wonders?

Macdonald takes Mabel “further afield” to Midsummer Common, where they watch a man cleaning his boat by the river. Macdonald and this stranger both have their jobs to do, their small roles in the history of this place. On their way home, a pack of runners passes by Macdonald and Mabel. Macdonald stands very still to the side of the path, and Mabel remains calm. It rains hard, and as they near home, Macdonald successfully has Mabel jump from the top of a post to her fist, the first time the hawk has jumped to Macdonald outdoors.


Chapters 9–10 Summary


Chapters 13–14 Summary