I love it when a book makes me interested in something I never thought I’d care about.
For example, The Orchid Thief’s brilliant exposition on the history of both orchids and the state of Florida coupled with a real-life hunt for the elusive ghost orchid kept me enthralled page after page. A Deadly Wandering used a texting-and-driving accident as a narrative thread for looking at how the law adapts to new technology and how our brain tries (and often fails) to the do the same. And in Factory Man, I became acquainted with the American furniture industry and the fiery figure who fought the way foreign competition was affecting his industry.
Another book I’ll add to this list of favorites is Helen Macdonald’s powerful, poignant H Is for Hawk. If you were to ask me if I’d like to read a book that’s partly about the history of falconry, focused especially on the temperamental goshawk, partly about the life of author T.H. White of The Sword and the Stone fame, and partly a grief memoir following Macdonald’s father’s sudden death, I’m not sure I’d sign right up.
And yet, I find myself years after having finished the book still thinking about it, from time to time. I also find myself still looking with a new respect at the red-tailed hawks circling and soaring over my backyard — one, last week, with a scrambling squirrel held tightly in its talons.
Macdonald’s ability to create a story that moves through these various topics astounds. At times, I simply found myself marveling at how she did it, but mostly I wanted to learn more and more about hawks and about her and about her father and about the reclusive T.H. White.
Macdonald’s father helped foster an interest in the outdoors and in falconry in her from a young age. We learn of his unexpected death early in the book and join her as she journeys through grief and despair and anger and disillusionment.
She writes, “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.”
If you’ve been through an unexpected death, and particularly the sudden death of a parent, you will relate to this and to so much that follows. While it’s true that death and grief are specific to each individual, and sharing it perfectly isn’t ever attainable, there are some broad similarities. Macdonald deals with her grief by adopting and training a goshawk, finding release in the bird’s wildness and in her ability, and struggle, to contain that.
H Is For Hawk reminded me of two other books about grief, and healing it, in part, through the natural world: The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen, and Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. If you enjoyed either of those, I bet you’d find solace in Macdonald’s book, and vice versa. All three touch on something similar — the need to get out into nature in order to embrace the unimaginable.
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