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Last Updated on August 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is, on its face, a book about falconry and a goshawk named Mabel. But it is also a book about grief and dealing with the aftermath of the death of a loved one—in this case, the author’s father, who died suddenly of a...

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H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is, on its face, a book about falconry and a goshawk named Mabel. But it is also a book about grief and dealing with the aftermath of the death of a loved one—in this case, the author’s father, who died suddenly of a heart attack.

Macdonald is a historian, and she describes her grief in terms that are both academic and immediate:

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning “to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.” Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

Anguished by the loss of her father, Macdonald longs to escape into the world of the hawk she begins to train:

The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

Late in the book, Macdonald sees a herd of fallow deer at the edge of the field where she is flying Mabel. Afterward, a neighbor tells Macdonald that the sight of the deer makes him think of Old England—of a time before there were “all these immigrants coming in.” The man’s remark appalls Macdonald, but it also sparks an insightful meditation on perspective and history.

Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.

Through training her goshawk, Mabel, Macdonald comes to better understand her grief, herself, and her father, as well as hawks, history, and the natural world. Near the end of the memoir, she writes,

Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there—rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel, I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.
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