Monday, 2 January 2017

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Image result for h is for hawkI came to H is for Hawk looking for commonality. Most of what I knew about it was that it was a memoir about the time after Helen Macdonald's father's death, and that it involved training a hawk. I have absolutely no hawking or falconry experience, but it was not so very long ago (six years) that I lost my own father, and so I expected to find moments that rang true with my experience, that gave me a sense of connection and solidarity in the wake of sharing something terrible with the author.

That's not really what I got, and it strikes me now that both the memoirs I can think of that I've read about reactions after losing a parent (Wild by Cheryl Strayed is the other one) are about rather extreme reactions to that loss. I suppose the way I coped with it wouldn't make a very good book - I didn't hike the Pacific Northwest. I didn't pour all my energy into connecting with a wild animal. I simply cried. A lot. I didn't get much done on my dissertation that year. I still taught, both as a teaching assistant and a lecturer. I delivered my first paper at a history conference. I still hung out with my friends. Most of my life stayed surprisingly and heartbreakingly normal.

There were just a lot of tears mixed in with the normal, moments where grief swept in like a tidal wave and knocked me down. But every time I got back up, and I didn't resort to substances to cope. I didn't lash out at people. And I didn't undertake any crazy projects.

Of course, what I had was the rock of my husband through all of that, a stable place to come back to as often as I needed to, who wrapped me up in his arms and let me cry more times than I can possibly count. That I survived that grief, continue to survive that grief that is much less sharp now, but still surprises me with its sneakiness, is largely because I have him and I have my mother and sisters, and we grew closer in the wake of our loss, not further apart.

I am not saying other people are doing grieving wrong - I'm saying that I was extraordinarily lucky to have as strong and stable a base as I did, to help me get through it. And that what gets published is probably never going to be that story.

So when I read H is for Hawk I didn't recognize myself in it. The ways she dealt with the loss of her father made sense to me intellectually, but not on a visceral level of recognition. She looked for a way to control her life, and in many ways, a way to not be human for a little while, as though to identify so strongly with a wild creature would let her be that creature and not the pain of herself.

I know nothing of taming wild hunting birds, and that was all interesting, as were the ways it was intertwined with a biography of T.E. White, author of The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King. It felt like maybe at times it was trying to be too many things, although that perhaps could be something I would identify with - the inability of the mind to stay too long on one topic, the way quiet can feel like inviting pain.

While I never connected emotionally with this book, and recognized little of my own experience in Macdonald's, it was still an interesting read, if only because it is so different, a glimpse into a realm that I never quite entered, and don't know what my own way in would be.


  1. My wife just lost her father a few months ago and I can only hope that I did as well as your own husband in rock duty. It's a very tough thing to go through, I'm sure. Sounds like you appreciated much of Macdonald's account even without the intimate 'grief' connection. I got the impression that for her, falconry brought back memories of her unusual childhood and the shared passion she had with her father for patiently observing and researching.

    Great review, as usual, Megan. You personalized this one especially well.

    - Steve H

    1. Thanks, Steve. I find anything I read these days with the death of a parent is still likely to affect me in a different way than it would have before.