Friday, August 24, 2018

Understanding, As Much As Possible


Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk gave me -- as much as possible -- a window into the mind of a hawk, one that I have longed for with varying intensity over the years. It may have begun with the hawk scenes The Once and Future King. It may have begun earlier. But I have always longed to be a medieval lady with a hawk on her fist -- or, failing that, a modern lady, ditto.

(On the other side of the coin is my opinion that wild things belong in the wild and should not be subjected to our human whims. Surprisingly, I got over that fairly quickly, perhaps because Macdonald was doing something I'd always longed to do. And it seems harmless enough that she should do it, when I never will. Whether that's a rationalization or just good sense deserves further consideration.) 

Part memoir, part literary exploration, part training exploration, part love story, Macdonald's Orion Book Award-winning book is a thrilled blend of various genres into a lyrical whole that has just enough personal drama and gritty detail to keep it from being too much of a good thing. As she learns to handle, fly, and bond with her goshawk Mabel, with the help of both a deeply flawed antique falconry manual (not coincidentally written by T. H. White, also the author of The Once and Future King) and several human mentors, Macdonald processes her father's death and her own imperfection.

And when she writes of the hawk in magnificent action, Macdonald takes us into the thickets and skies with Mabel, swooping and soaring, bloody and beautiful and bonded and wild.

Excerpt (Helen walks Mabel, getting her used to people and things):

On this second expedition from the house Mabel grips the glove more tightly than ever. She is tense. She looks smaller and feels heavier in this mood . . . . She follows bicycles with her eyes. She hunches ready to spring when people come too close. Children alarm her. She is unsure about dogs. . . .

After ten minutes of haunted apprehension, the goshawk decides that she's not going to be eaten, or beaten to death, by any of these things. She rouses [shakes and settles her feathers] and begins to eat. Cars and buses rattle fumily past, and when the food is gone she stands staring at the strange world about her. So do I. I've been with the hawk so long, just her and me, that I'm seeing my city through her eyes. . . . The things she sees are uninteresting to her. Irrelevant. Until there's a clatter of wings. We both look up. There's a pigeon, a woodpigeon, sailing down to roost in a lime tree above us. Time slows. The air thickens and the hawk is transformed. It's as if all her weapons systems were suddenly engaged. Red cross-hairs. She stands on her toes and cranes her neck. This. This flightpath. This thing, she thinks. This is fascinating. Some part of the hawk's young brain has just worked something out, and it has everything to do with death.  

Note: I read this for the Reading Naturally Challenge and counted it for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, too.

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