I’ve always needed or at least wanted animals in my life. My memoir is crawling with them. As a daydreaming boy I loved reading stories about animals and ecosystems—maybe the genesis of my passion for nonfiction. I got in trouble at school for reading a book about turtles during class. At home, my bedroom floor was covered with animal skins, including that of a zebra an uncle shot in Africa. Atop my walnut dressers: an incubator stuffed with domestic duck eggs and aquariums shimmering with snakes and fish caught in nearby lots and ditches. Sometimes a free-ranging iguana or parakeet passed through.
I gave up the reptiles eventually. They were, well, too reptilian. Birds possess a warmth, maybe emanating from their feathers. There seems a reciprocal consciousness, even an interest, in their eyes.
Satellite Beach, Florida, where I grew up, was an earthly paradise, situated atop a scrim of sand between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Indian River, a broad estuary, to the west. Until my father’s almost-fatal heart attack in 1967, when he was 49 and I was twelve, he took us fishing and skiing in the river. I was grieving for the loss of the first home I’d known, our Georgia cattle ranch, but I took solace in nature. In winter, migrating ducks rode the river’s dark face, and lying in my bedroom at night I thought of them—each bird alone but all together and wholly immortal in their vast rafts. When I finally raised wild ducks in middle age, in Indiana, I felt them carry a piece of me into the sky when they took wing.
In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald brings out the beauty and killing prowess of raptors used as hunting allies. She’s steeped in the ancient tradition of falconry, reduced, in our time, to a tiny, odd subculture. The hook for this book includes her selection of a notoriously temperamental goshawk to train instead of a comparatively easy species such as a peregrine falcon. She spends much time fretting over her hawk and frantically running after it, raising a gloved fist and blowing a whistle.
I should say her, not it: Macdonald’s goshawk is a girl. Endearingly dubbed Mabel, she is both gorgeous and a fierce avatar of death. So it’s all the more charming when Macdonald discovers that Mabel enjoys playing catch with crumpled paper wads. Mabel’s narrowed eyes mean mirth. But she’s a changeling. Triggered by sights and sounds, her quicksilver reactions—effectively her moods—are expressed in beating wings, biting beak, gripping talons.
H is for Hawk, the first memoir to win Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize, is slow at first, and dense—this was my fresh-mind morning book for a good while before I adjusted to Macdonald’s rhythms. But heightened experiences appeal, and Macdonald evokes them in a narrative rife with savory juxtapositions. She braids three stories: taming and training the goshawk; coping with her father’s death and her disordered state; depicting novelist T.H. White’s own harrowing experience with a goshawk. White’s deeply damaged psyche and tormented life anger and chasten Macdonald in her mirroring pursuit.