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H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk (2014), written by author, academic, and naturalist Helen Macdonald (1970-), explores the deep pain that grief can cause. After losing her beloved father, Macdonald finds herself saved by the natural world and a stubborn bird named Mabel. Read on for a summary of H is for Hawk, along with an analysis of the text and its language, structure, and influences.

A naturalist is one who studies nature, wildlife, and the natural world.

Author of H is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald was born in 1970 in Surrey, England. She is the daughter of Alisdair Macdonald (1940-2007), a respected photojournalist who spent much of his life working for the English newspaper the Daily Mirror. Macdonald led a childhood surrounded by nature and wildlife, largely due to their father. She found a love of falconry at a young age and pursued this for the rest of her life.

Helen Macdonald is non-binary and goes by she/they pronouns.

Macdonald studied English at Cambridge University. After completing her undergraduate degree, she entered into various programmes as a Research Fellow, where she remains today. Macdonald has published various books, including Shaler's Fish (2001), H is for Hawk (2014), and Vesper Flights (2020). H is for Hawk, her autobiography, was published to widespread acclaim, becoming a Sunday Times bestseller.

As well as being an academic and writer, Macdonald is also an experienced naturalist. They have made several nature documentaries for the BBC, and many of their literary works revolve around animals and the natural world.

Helen Macdonald currently lives in Suffolk. She is still actively writing and researching. They are also still a keen falconer and has owned various birds.

H is for Hawk: summary

H is for Hawk opens with Helen Macdonald, an academic and falconer studying goshawks north of Cambridge. She discusses the unique and stubborn nature of the birds and her interest in them. Upon their return from their trip, they discover their father has passed away from a sudden heart attack. This devastates Macdonald, who is hit by a sense of grief so deep it surprises even herself. Her father, Alisdair Macdonald, was a photojournalist and fostered her love of falconry from a young age. In an attempt to channel her grief, Macdonald purchases her own goshawk, who she names Mabel, and begins trying to train her.

A goshawk is a type of large hawk found in various different parts of Europe and America. They are territorial, powerful hunters, and notoriously difficult for falconers to train.

Macdonald's task in training Mabel is a difficult one. Goshawks are stubborn and resistant, which Macdonald must grapple with while also grieving their father. She makes mentions of and comparisons to the writings of renowned author T.H. White (1906-1964). White is best known for his 1937 retelling of the legend of King Arthur, entitled The Once and Future King. However, White was also a passionate falconer, writing about his experience with training birds in The Goshawk (1951). Macdonald constructs a similar narrative to White's, detailing their struggles with training their goshawk alongside their own personal struggles. She sees White as utilising his text to explore himself and the issues he was facing in his own life and wishes to do the same.

After many struggles and doubts, Macdonald sees success in training Mabel; she allows her to fly away, and Mabel returns without an issue, something Macdonald was very fearful of doing. However, as she improves in falconry, Macdonald sees chaos in her personal life. Due to the intense grief, they are feeling, Macdonald isolates themself from their friends and family, struggling to even remain in her own home. She turns down various jobs in academia that she is offered, causing further instability in her life. It also becomes likely that she will lose her home. Macdonald pours their energy into Mabel and begins to view the coldness of hawks as representative of the world. She struggles to see any good in humanity after the loss of her father.

H is for Hawk, a goshawk on a branch, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A goshawk, the breed of bird that Macdonald grows to love.

However, Mabel helps Macdonald too. Her relationship to the goshawk, about whom her father taught her so much, helps Macdonald to begin to work through her grief. They begin to connect to their friends and family again. Macdonald also starts to think seriously about her job and living situation. She sees a therapist who helps her develop healthier coping mechanisms. Macdonald realises that the beauty of goshawks is in their independent and strong nature, while the beauty of humans is in their ability to connect to each other. Their father, an empathetic and affectionate man, comes to exemplify these positive qualities for Macdonald. They know they will always miss him but have found a healthier way to deal with their grief.

H is for Hawk: analysis

H is for Hawk is an autobiographical text.

An autobiography is an author's own life story, written by themselves and told in their own words. Famous autobiographies include Long Walk to Freedom (1994) by Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) and The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) by Anne Frank (1929-1945).

As an autobiography, H is for Hawk gives an in-depth insight into Macdonald's grieving process. She explores themes of pain, loss, and isolation through her own real experiences. After her father's death, Macdonald isolates herself both in falconry and nature, struggling to remain part of the real world. Their father taught them everything they know about falconry which leads Macdonald to base some of their personality on what they had learnt from their father. This makes his death even more painful for her.

Macdonald also writes about her grieving process and how she comes to view loss. She physically feels her father's presence, even when he isn't there, which provides her with some comfort. As a learned academic, Macdonald is aware of the usual psychological processes of grief and that they are going through them, but they are unable to stop them. She must grieve like everyone else.

H is for Hawk: language and structure

Structured in two parts, H is for Hawk follows Helen Macdonald's journey through grief. Each chapter has a different title and explores a different concept. For example, an early chapter is entitled 'Lost', depicting the pain Macdonald is suffering from grief, while a later one is called 'The new world', containing a much more hopeful tone. The two-part structure of H is for Hawk showcases Macdonald's progression through the stages of grief over the course of a year.

While H is for Hawk is a non-fiction text, much of the language in it is descriptive and lyrical, straying closer to language we may expect to find in a novel instead. This holds particularly true when Macdonald is writing about Mabel and nature more broadly, as seen in the below quote.

Later that afternoon I take Mabel into the walled garden of my college house. Above us is a deep field of fast-moving cumulus. Branches lift in the breeze; leaves shift with a collapsing, papery flicker. The air is thick with sun and dust and dandelion seeds. There's too much light, too much contrast. (Helen Macdonald, Chp. 10)

Macdonald engages in detailed descriptions of nature frequently to showcase its beauty and power. She does the same for Mabel and for other hawks. For a time in her grieving process, nature and Mabel are all Macdonald has. They isolate themself and focus on nature instead of anything else in their broader life. However, this causes issues, too, as Macdonald often bases her self-worth on whether or not she can successfully train the elusive Mabel.

H is for Hawk, a sunlit forest with full green trees, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The natural world is central to Macdonald's grieving process.

H is for Hawk: poem

While H is for Hawk is written in non-fiction prose, Macdonald uses a great deal of poetic language in her descriptions of the natural world. She also makes reference to a number of poems that impacted and aided her in her grief process. For example, she writes of studying the anonymous thirteenth-century poem Sir Orfeo. Macdonald's comparisons to T.H. White's The Goshawk are also relevant here. White makes frequent allusions to various forms of literature in his book, poetry included. For example, he reimagines lines from John Milton's (1608-1674) elegy poem Lycidas (1637). By including these references, Macdonald locates her text in a distinctly literary tradition. As an academic and lover of language, it seems that the world of books and poetry aids Macdonald in their journey towards accepting grief and loss.

Can you identify any passages in H is for Hawk that use poetic language?

H is for Hawk - Key takeaways

  • H is for Hawk is a 2014 text by author and naturalist Helen Macdonald.
  • It is an autobiographical text.
  • H is for Hawk depicts Macdonald's struggles through grief after the loss of her father.
  • The text uses lyrical and descriptive language to depict the beauty of nature.
  • Macdonald's book contains references to other literary works, locating itself within a literary canon.


References

  1. Charlotte Fox, "Reclaiming" Tradition: An Exploration of Literary Influence in Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk, Journal of Modern Literature, 2022.

Frequently Asked Questions about H is for Hawk

Yes, it is an autobiographical text.

Macdonald uses the text to work through her grief at losing her father.

H is for Hawk is set in England.

The tone of the text is a sad and grief-stricken one that gradually becomes more hopeful.

H is for Hawk is an autobiography.

Final H is for Hawk Quiz

Question

When was H is for Hawk published?

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Answer

2014.

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What genre is H is for Hawk?

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Answer

Autobiography.

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What is a naturalist?

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Answer

A naturalist is one who studies nature, wildlife, and the natural world.

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What profession was Macdonald's father in?

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Answer

Photojournalism.

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What breed of bird is Mabel?

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Answer

Goshawk.

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What university did Macdonald attend?

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Cambridge University.

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Which renowned author does Macdonald make significant reference to?

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Answer

T.H. White.

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What book was T.H. White best known for?

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Answer

The Once and Future King.

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How can goshawks be described?

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Answer

Stubborn and resistant.

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Due to grief, what destructive behaviour does Macdonald engage in?

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Answer

She isolates herself.

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What does Macdonald sometimes base her self worth on?

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Whether she is successful in training Mabel.

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In what attribute does Macdonald find the beauty of humanity?

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Answer

The ability to connect to others.

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How many parts is H is for Hawk structured into?

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Answer

Two.

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Why does Macdonald use lyrical and poetic language to describe nature?

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Answer

To showcase nature's beauty and power.

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Question

Which thirteenth century poem does Macdonald reference?

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Answer

Sir Orfeo.

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