Helen Macdonald

H Is For Hawk

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H Is For Hawk Summary

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald opens on the protagonist, Helen, who is a falconer. She’s talking about how she loves birds. Specifically, she talks about the Goshawk. Known for being difficult to train, these savage birds have piqued her interest. Upon returning home from watching the Goshawks in the forest, Helen is shocked to hear that her beloved father has passed away.

To help her through her grief, Helen decides to buy and train her own Goshawk. She names her Mabel, and, after much time and effort, Helen is able to tame the bird. While the bird is tame, Helen is concerned that their new relationship is tenuous at best. She fears that if she sets the bird free to hunt, Mabel will not return. Helen enlists the help of two friends, Stuart and Christina, to help ensure that Mabel does not fly away forever. Her first hunt with her Goshawk is successful in that Mabel comes back to her with the help of Helen’s friends.

While Helen is succeeding with Mabel, other areas of her life are falling apart. Her grief gives her nightmares. People make her feel ill at ease. After losing her job, she is faced with the likelihood that she will soon lose her home. Loss after loss, Helen retreats further and further. She wishes she could live like a hawk, solitary, but of course cannot. She has to write and deliver a speech in honor of her late father at his upcoming memorial service.

It’s through her connection with Mabel that Helen is able to begin to heal from her grief and the shocking loss of her father, with whom she was close. She successfully writes and delivers her speech. She begins to connect with people again, realizing that she has friends and family who care about her and are committed to helping her recover. Just as Helen is beginning to knit her life back together again, she almost loses Mabel.

It is that close call that alerts Helen to the fact that she’s not giving Mabel the proper care. She decides to go to a therapist, and finally begins to work through her grief. Shortly after, Helen goes with her family to visit some friends. She realizes that she is enjoying herself despite the fact that she’s not hiding away with Mabel in the woods. Upon her return home, Helen looks for a new job and a new place to live. By the novel’s close, Helen realizes that while she will always miss her father, she can’t hide from her grief or other problems. Rather, she needs to face them head on to learn how to live with them, fix with them, and in some cases, grieve the losses that life sends her way.

Life involves many wonderful experiences, but also the chance for plenty of painful experiences. H is for Hawk is about building solutions to handle those changes without retreating. Another theme woven throughout H is for Hawk is the importance of patience. Helen learned from her father when she was a child that patience is crucial—especially in bird watching. While she demonstrates patience in bonding with Mabel, she initially doesn’t offer herself that same patience to grieve and heal. As soon as things start to crumble in her life, she wants nothing more than to escape.

This feeling can be common with grief. However, grief doesn’t go away just because one runs from it. It’s always going to be there and whether it’s dealt with right away or ten years down the line, it must be dealt with. This book points out how the grieving process itself is like life, full of ups and downs. Just as one starts to feel healed, something can happen that demands further patience with the grieving process.

For her work with H is for Hawk, Macdonald garnered praise not only for her writing, but for the accuracy with which she describes the relationship between hawk and falconer. Macdonald’s book was a best seller in England and was a recipient of the Costa Book of the Year Award as well as the Samuel Johnson Prize. In the United States, critics called the book “breathtaking.”

Helen Macdonald’s memoir begins with the onset of shock and grief, and carries through to the point where she has accepted her father’s death and started looking forward. Grief can be heartbreaking, especially as its effects can be felt long after the event. Yet, as Helen experienced in H is for Hawk, with some patience, one can come out stronger on the other side.