Sunday, December 4, 2016

Macdonald, Helen (H Is for Hawk)

I don't think I've read anything in a long while that is both erudite and a super easy read.

Macdonald has crafted something surprisingly special. This is not a thesis (i.e., her university thesis) in sheep's clothing, although it may look like that at the outset. It's a personal rumination on grief on the death of her father - but because her rumination involves buying a hawk and becoming a falconer (again), it's not your everyday foray into the process of grieving. She researches her own desire to buy a hawk to assuage her grief, and thus reads up on other falconers. Chief among these is T.H. White, whose story is nearly as fascinating as her own. (Aside: why in heaven's name are White's archives in Texas, of all places?)

She doesn't find a lot of similarity between herself and White - she ends up finding more disturbing similarities between herself and her hawk for a while - but his lifelong grief is a counterpoint to her own at the time. What you learn about White is eye-opening, but what you learn about hawks and falconry is absolutely the best part of the book. Even having seen falconry exhibits, I had no idea what it takes to be a good falconer, and I'm even more deeply impressed by those who spend their lives at this. (Of course there is controversy about the concept of taming wild birds, but she sidesteps this neatly, for the most part.)

She's a mess, at this point in her life, but it's an engaging, heartfelt, thoughtful and oh-very-British mess. I would love to hear where her life has taken her next. I'll read her next memoir-slash-set-of-essays-slash-research-project in a second.

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