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Helen Macdonald's 'H Is for Hawk': Taming a wild bird

Helen Macdonald, author of "H Is for Hawk"

Helen Macdonald, author of "H Is for Hawk" (Grove, March 2014). Credit: Marzena Pogorzaly

H IS FOR HAWK, by Helen Macdonald. Grove Press, 300pp., $26.

The goshawk is not an easy bird to tame, to take under one's wing. When English writer Helen Macdonald drives to Scotland to hand over hundreds of pounds in cash to a breeder, she meets a creature that's not so much a bird as "a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel," its eyes flashing everywhere, seeing and absorbing so much more, so much faster, than human eyes ever could.

Undaunted, Macdonald takes the hawk, which she names Mabel, home to Cambridge, and sets about trying to learn her habits and needs. Becoming ever more closely attuned to the bird's instincts, she begins to mimic them, withdrawing from human company and focusing obsessively on the natural world. In the grip of grief, after the sudden death of her father, Macdonald's own solitude is both magnified and made irrelevant by the goshawk's magnificent isolation.

Mabel is not so unusual a companion for Macdonald, who has been reading about and learning to train birds of prey since childhood. As a historian, too, she's fascinated by them -- "history collapses when you hold a hawk." They have never been domesticated: there are stories about hawks and falcons in the oldest literature we have. In European culture, the world of falconry has always been masculine and aristocratic, dangerously seductive -- Nazis loved the imagery and the hunt. In the era of aerial warfare, fighter jets were constantly compared to birds of prey, making them seem both more natural and more savage.

Haunting Macdonald's story is another tale of hawk training as a test of humanity. As a girl she'd read and been troubled by "The Goshawk" by T.H. White, best known for his modern retelling of the Arthurian legends, "The Once and Future King." She revisits White's frustrating story of trying and failing to train a goshawk, building up from that book and his unpublished writings a sensitive portrait of a desperately lonely young man. Born in India in 1906 and abused in childhood in the routine way of young boys of his era and class, White found himself prey to desires that couldn't be articulated, let alone fulfilled, instead burying himself in nature, solitude, and mythology.

Macdonald's grief also threatens to detach her from solid ground, but not forever. Mabel cannot hunt year-round: after a bloody, lonely winter spent chasing rabbits and pheasants through the fields around Cambridge, Macdonald must let her rest during her spring molting season, and find her own way back to the tame, paved-over world. But her writing -- about soil and weather, myth and history, pain and its slow easing -- retains the qualities of Mabel's wild heart, and the commanding scope and piercing accuracy of her hawk's eye.

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