Amanda Reads: H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

This week, it’s back to books on the blog! Since it’s been so sunny and bright, I’ve been cracking my way through audiobooks as I take long walks to soak up the sunshine before April inevitably crushes my spirit with rain (which, this Monday, it certainly has).

As a result, I finally decided to give in to the plethora of recommendations I’ve been seeing and finally read Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

I can’t exactly explain why I avoided this book for so long. I guess I just didn’t think it sounded like the type of story that would appeal to me. Or maybe, just maybe, some part of me was resisting what I knew a book about a woman training a goshawk would recall in me. Perhaps I was suppressing my childhood obsessions with Red-Tailed Hawks and King Arthur because I didn’t want to be reminded of the reasons why I clung so desperately to such strange and essential passions. Within minutes of pressing play, I realized how much I had forgotten about what would make me connect with this book.

H is for Hawk

The story of my obsession with hawks also begins with a book. Or rather, a series of books. As a bookish, socially anxious child who lived almost entirely in her head, I used to devour every series I could get my hands on. I tore through Animorphs distressingly out of order, checking book after book out of the library. I hope it isn’t a spoiler to reveal that one of the characters, Tobias, becomes “stuck” as a Red-Tailed Hawk for reasons I can no longer remember.

Child Amanda had a massive crush on Tobias, though it’s now hard to explain why. I like to think that there was something deeper to how attached I became to this character who had a human mind trapped in a bird of prey’s body. Most likely, the girl who felt trapped in her own mind, wanting to be able to connect to the people around her but feeling fundamentally different, found a sense of freedom in the idea of taking flight and soaring above the world. Equally likely, I just had a thing for tortured dudes, and you can’t get much more tortured than being a hawk, I guess?

As I listened to Helen MacDonald discuss the experience of bonding with Mabel, her goshawk, these childhood memories came flooding back. I remembered desperately wishing I could connect with a bird of prey, the way Helen connects with the goshawk she trains. As she uncovered depths of her grief in becoming linked with the hawk, I uncovered my own forgotten obsessions.

As if trying to remind me of the person I wanted to forget having been, Helen MacDonald also talks a great deal about T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King. Apparently, T.H. White also wrote a book about training a goshawk, a book which Helen felt connected to as she underwent her own goshawk training experience. My second somewhat irrational but probably psychologically significant obsession as a kid was, of course, King Arthur. Actually, because King Arthur would’ve been too mainstream, it was the poem “The Lady of Shalott,” which is linked to the King Arthur legend but features a much less prominent female character. I was so obsessed with this poem that I memorized 100 lines of it for a project in school. A project where we were only required to memorize 20 lines. Not that it was ever obvious I was going to major in literature or anything.

As I walked around the sunlit streets of Clifton with Helen MacDonald’s soothing voice in my ears, I felt my own stories blend and melt into hers the same way she felt T.H. White’s story blend and melt into her own as she trained Mabel. It shouldn’t have made sense, how telling White’s biography fit inside her own story, a story that was very different aside from the presence of a trained bird of prey. And yet, like she says, it did make sense, because White was there in her mind as she trained her hawk. As he struggled to accept who he was, so did Helen struggle to accept the depth of grief. In the same way, Tobias the Red-Tailed Hawk and the Lady of Shalot, along with the awkward childhood version of myself, sat crouched in the back of my own mind as I listened to the memoir.

Perhaps it is because of this strange power of memory that the book held over me that I struggle now to recall too many of its details. Interwoven in Helen MacDonald’s beautifully written, emotionally captivating tail of grief and self exploration are my own memories, the things to which I used to cling and then abandoned, shedding them like an outgrown skin. The book is powerful on its own, but is perhaps uniquely powerful to me, calling up in me something formerly forgotten. This is part of why I love books. A text belongs to its author for a short time and then it goes out into the world, where it has a slightly different reaction with every reader whose path it crosses. Sometimes, a book hits the right person at the right moment, and that’s when the magic happens.

I recommend this book because I know its appeal is broad; I have seen it floating around on too many book blogs and lists and podcasts to think otherwise. But I loved this book for reasons that were entirely my own. And that is the beauty of being a reader.


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