H Is for Hawk

H Is for Hawk

Book - 2015
Average Rating:
Rate this:
Destined to be a classic of nature writing, the story of how one woman trained a goshawk.

As a child Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer. She learned the arcane terminology and read all the classic books, including T. H. White's tortured masterpiece, The Goshawk , which describes White's struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest.

When her father dies and she is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.

H is for Hawk is a record of a spiritual journey--an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald's struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk's taming and her own untaming. At the same time, it's a kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant and troubled novelist T. H. White, best known for The Once and Future King . It's a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.

As John Vaillant's The Tiger depicted the dangerous collision of people and nature, H is for Hawk evokes our deepest longings for something wild. With stunning language that that resonates long after the book's conclusion, H is for Hawk is destined to be a classic of nature writing.

Publisher: Toronto : Hamish Hamilton, 2015.
Copyright Date: ©2014.
ISBN: 9780670069552
Characteristics: 300 pages ;,23 cm.


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Mar 20, 2021

MO Conservationist recommendation.

Jan 24, 2021

There are parts of this book that simply grabbed me and carried me away — and others that left me unsatisfied. We’re presented with an account of the writer’s personal grieving process along with the story of her development of a complex relationship with a wild creature. The two themes have so little in common (other than that they take place simultaneously) that they often crash noisily against each other.
Helen Macdonald is at her best when describing herself as an eight-year-old girl: "I was a scrawny, too-tall child with ink on my fingers, binoculars around my neck and legs covered in plasters. I was shy, pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, fantastically clumsy, hopeless at sports and allergic to dogs and horses. But I had an obsession. Birds. Birds of prey most of all. I was sure they were the best things that had ever existed. My parents thought this obsession would go the way of the others: dinosaurs, ponies, volcanoes. It didn’t. It worsened. When I was six I tried to sleep every night with my arms folded behind my back like wings. This didn’t last long, because it is very hard to sleep with your arms folded behind your back like wings" ….. And so she continues for the better part of two pages. It’s altogether wonderful, humorous, deeply revealing; it was the highlight of the book!
At times, I sensed that Macdonald was finding it more comfortable to recount the long dead T. H. White’s troubled life than in the telling of her own story. White’s tale of tortured angst became a stone around the neck of Macdonald’s own narrative. She is a person with her own emotional issues. Was she perhaps attempting (subconsciously) to rise above her own grief and shortcomings by contrasting her own progress with her hawk against all of White’s foibles? She acknowledges that when, in her childhood, she was reading White’s story: "I was on the right side, was allowed to dislike this grown-up and consider him a fool …. I took comfort in the blithe superiority that is the refuge of the small." White’s life story is a tiresome reprise of the irksomely common pattern of the upper-class English — a child abandoned by parents into the custody (not care!) of a residential school. His failure as a falconer simply adds another dimension, one that Macdonald seeks to exploit in telling her own story to her advantage.
Macdonald’s revelations about the goshawk’s astonishing sensory faculties and her account of playing a game of catch with her hawk are quite wonderful. Likewise, her account of her departure from her academic life, into a total immersion in her relationship with the hawk, likening her descent to Alice’s descent into the rabbit hole while able to pick off, examine and replace items from the walls as she spirals down.
All that said, I found that from about the half-way point, the book began to drift. Almost everything Macdonald had to say had already been said, there were no new insights, no life-altering events; and a troubling lack of meaningful human relationships. Her story was simply not going anywhere. The loss of her father left her unable to bond with anyone else. Mabel, the hawk is an almost unqualified success as a raptor. Whether Macdonald will find success as a complete person remains to be seen.

Apr 19, 2020

A fascinating book, with a stream of consciousness narrative that is endearing and poetic. If you love nature and bird watching, and the natural world this book is for you! One of my favorite books of all time.

CCPL_Carly Jan 15, 2020

In this one-of-a-kind book, Helen Macdonald has written a memoir of her grief, a dedication to the art of falconry, and an examination of the life of author T.H. White. While this may sound like an odd mix of subjects, at the heart of her story is an illustration of nature's power to heal. This memoir should inspire readers to look more closely and carefully at the natural world around them, and perhaps seek solace there.

Oct 23, 2019

Eh. Critic's darling. Didn't care for it.

JCLAMELIAM Jun 18, 2019

I deeply admire and possibly idolize author Helen Macdonald for her literary feat: H is for Hawk. It is a book of lyrical and crushing language filled with keen, dreamy reflections on nature and death. The premise of this memoir-hybrid is enthralling: A woman attempts to confront the loss of her father through the taming of a hawk. Helen and the hawk's journey together is full of failure, humor, despair, hope, and beauty. Macdonald deftly explores the complexity of human and animal interaction in a world where such encounters are increasingly rare. This book has become one of my all-time favorites.

May 11, 2019

Several friends raved about this book, but I began it with some hesitation because I don't believe a wild bird should be kept for one's pleasure. That being said, I did admire her relationship and empathy with her hawk and wanted to meet it.

Beyond that however, the book bogged down in her grief over her father's death and her obsession with T.H. White and his sexuality/alcoholism/neuroses. Better books have been written about grieving the death of a loved one, and who cares about an obscure English author's troubled life?

I had trouble accepting her willingness to participate in killing wild birds and animals for sport. When you keep a "pet", no matter how wild it once was, you should provide for their food as you would for any other member of the family.

I cheered when she finally got some antidepressants - should have happened 10 chapters earlier!

Feb 19, 2019

This was an amazing book. It took me a few pages to get used to the style of writing, though.

Feb 06, 2019

This is one of the best non-fiction books that I have read in a long time. It is an elegy to her father's sudden, unexpected death. It is also gorgeous descriptive prose about the English countryside. It is also her own self-reflection about what that death did to her. I sense that she described it in such detail in order to understand her reaction better, and also to record it for her future self. My father also died unexpectedly when I was young, and it rocked my world, just as the author's world was rocked. I didn't record my feelings at the time, only remembering flashes now.
So, this book allowed me to remember that time in my life, without actually suffering it again.
And of course, it is a beautiful description of the hawk and her relationship with it. (Oh, and of course, it is an abbreviated examination of T. H. White, whose book "The Sword in the Stone" I read many, many years ago. I suspect her insights would make me appreciate that book even more now than I did then).
Amazing that this book contains so much, and yet is a book that flew past - it kept me up late at night to finish.

Enjoyed reading this book of nonfiction, which has three story-lines. The first storyline involves the author’s lifelong fascination with the sport of falconry, and how she comes to own and train a goshawk named Mabel. The book is also a memoir of grief: MacDonald makes the decision to purchase and train Mabel as she deals with the sudden death of her father, which leaves her lost and unmoored. Yet another storyline is a sort of mini-biography of TH White, the author best known for writing The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone. As well as these Arthurian novels, White wrote a work of non-fiction titled The Goshawk about trying and ultimately failing to train a hawk. MacDonald writes about White’s tortured life, and how his own struggles and shortcomings impacted his efforts to train his hawk. You’ll enjoy this if you like literary fiction or non-fiction, memoirs, or well-written nature writing. (Submitted by David)

View All Comments


Add a Quote
Jan 30, 2016

‘How you can talk of love for a bird after subjecting our wonderful predatory birds to such torture is beyond a normal mind,’ the letter ran. ‘Is there not enough cruelty in the world without adding to it for one’s amusement or hobby?’

I look down at my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she’d been fractious with hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I’d pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I’d thought I’d lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she’d helped mend, not make.

Jan 30, 2016

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.

Jan 30, 2016

I think of all the complicated histories that landscapes have, and how easy it is to wipe them away, put easier, safer histories in their place. They are only safe for us. ... There are few plants other than crops, and few bees, or butterflies, for the soil is dressed and sprayed with chemicals that kill. Ten years ago there were turtle doves on this land. Thirty years ago there were corn buntings and enormous flocks of lapwings. Seventy years ago there were red-backed shrikes, wrynecks and snipe. Two hundred years ago, ravens and black grouse. All of them are gone.

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.

Jan 30, 2016

Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.

From her sunlit perch she descends to the hand I hold out in the shade of a hedge and I feel a surge of indescribable relief. I start shivering, cold and hot all at once.

In the imagination, everything can be restored, everything mended, wounds healed, stories ended.

White gives himself a new pupil to train: not a hawk, but the boy who will be king.

…you can reconcile the wild. You can bring it home with you.

‘A herd of deer,’ he says, beaming, then his expression folds into something I don’t recognise. ‘Doesn’t it gives you hope?’ he says suddenly. ‘Hope?’ ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in?’ I don’t know what to say…

Jan 30, 2016

The falconer and scientist Professor Tom Cade once described falconry as a kind of ‘high-intensity birdwatching’.

The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.

I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. Some had fixed themselves to the stars of elusive animals. Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens. Some sought wildness at a distance, others closer to home. ‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.

Jan 30, 2016

‘What am I searching for?’ ‘That you will only know when you find it.’ ‘Is it wisdom or manhood?’ ‘Perhaps it is love.’

...light. I closed my eyes against the glare and remembered the spider silk. I had walked all over it and had not seen it. I had not known it was there. It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.

Trained hawks didn’t catch animals. They caught quarry. They caught game.

I feel like White: a tyro, a fool, a beginner. An idiot.

Jan 30, 2016

I found there were myriad definitions of this thing called tragedy that had wormed its way through the history of literature; and the simplest of all was this: that it is the story of a figure who, through some moral flaw or personal failing, falls through force of circumstance to his doom.

I saw those nineteenth-century falconers were projecting onto their hawks all the male qualities they thought threatened by modern life, wildness, power, virility, independence and strength.

I look again she seems neither bird nor reptile, but a creature shaped by a million years of evolution for a life she’s not yet lived.

The tiny, hair-like feathers between her beak and eye – crines – are for catching blood so that it will dry, and flak…

He walks around the chapel, imaging the earth beneath him turning and muttering ad it senses the familiar hawk above, as the bones of farm labourers mutter when agricultural machinery passes over their forgotten tombs.

Jan 30, 2016

All these things had happened and my father had committed them to a memory that wasn’t just his own, but the world’s. My father’s life wasn’t about disappearance. His was a life that worked against it.

Henri Cartier-Bresson called the taking of a good photograph a decisive moment. ‘Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to clic the camera, he said. ‘The Moment!

The sparrow is caught mid-hop at exactly at the moment it takes the crumb from his fingers. And the expression on the man’s face is suffused with joy. He is wearing the face of an angel.

Both of us needed a break. I popped the hood back over her head. There. Fleeting panic, nerves afire, and then she relaxed because the day had turned to night and I had disappeared. The terror had gone. Hoodwinked.

Jan 30, 2016

In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the females so they are called tiercels, from …

For the boy, the string was a kind of wordless communication, a symbolic means of joining. It was a denial of separation. Holding tight.

…more expert you were, the less likely you were to call anything by its proper name.

Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and the react to stimuli literally without thinking.

After losing one’s father isn’t just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.

Putting a lens between himself and the world was a defence against more than physical danger: it shielded him from other things he had to photograph: awful things, tragic things: accidents, train crashes, the aftermath of city bombs. He’d worried…

Jan 30, 2016

…can’t help but think of a line written by the poet Marianne Moore: The cure for loneliness is solitude. And the solitude of the pilot in the spy-plane, seeing everything, touching nothing, reading The Once and Future King fifty thousand feet above…

He wonders if this is the most important book he’s ever written. Not because it will make his fortune. But because it will save him.

‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside.’ He could not imagine a human love returned. He had to displace his desires onto the landscape, that great, blank green field that cannot love you back, but cannot…

Feral. He wanted to be free. He wanted to be ferocious. He wanted to be fey, a fairy, ferox. All those elements of himself he’d pushed away, his sexuality, his desire for cruelty, for mastery: all these were suddenly there in the figure of the hawk.

View All Quotes


Add a Summary
ArapahoeSusanW Jul 18, 2017

Fascinating if a wee bit tedious story of a woman's efforts to train a challenging Goshawk with literary reference to TH White as well.

Jan 30, 2016

A glowing review and interview:


Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability

There are no age suitabilities for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings

Library owns a similar edition of this title.

View originally-listed edition

Report edition-matching error

To Top