This book is part raising a hawk, part memorial for a father, and part biography of T.H. White. In the weaving together of her familial loss with raising one of the world’s most terrifying birds of prey, Helen Macdonald takes readers on a journey I’m sure not many have experienced. Raising a Goshawk allows Helen to muse on her growth over the years, and how connected we as people are to those we choose to surround ourselves with– human and animal– and how those personalities can affect and change our own.
When I picked this book up and began reading, I was reminded of Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain trilogy, which I used to listen to in the car when I was much younger, for no reason other than the prominence of the bird as a character. Even when the goshawk is not being spoken of, her being is prominent throughout this nonfiction story. She is everywhere, an all-consuming force. It often feels like Helen is taking a backseat while she is looking for herself, the parts of her that she’s deemed missing with the loss of her father, to this majestic creature. And these moments of introspection through her work with the goshawk are when I found the prose to be the strongest.
“I have never seen anything so fiercely wild and so familiar. How can it be here? How can the wild be her in this back-lot in the middle of a town, in the midst of home and community? These are the things I had flown from” (252).
In this scene she is hawking with a friend and his red-tailed hawk, Yoder, while on a trip to Maine, while this isn’t her own goshawk, Mable, she realizes this ability to carry the wild with you anywhere, to create a home where it doesn’t seem home should be with her throughout the rest of the novel. And this is, I think, the lesson that she has been grappling to learn from Mabel. This is her turning point.
As I said above the cut, her story of raising this hawk is interspersed with moments from T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, where he does a very similar hunting-for-self through the process of raising a goshawk, with one large difference he has no idea what he is doing. While the contrast between their two experiences is interesting, and in these moments Helen is able to talk to the reader about her lifelong desire to work with these great birds. I found myself skimming these chapters as they came up. I didn’t find the contrast as appealing as I think I was meant to, and often found myself yelling at White, because while my knowledge of falconry is limited to what I read in this book and what I remember from My Side of the Mountain and his work with the bird happened some 70-years ago, he was doing everything wrong. But more importantly, I felt like these moments took from Helen’s journey with her goshawk, they pulled me very suddenly from the solitude she created while manning her hawk, and the reflection that often came with it.
Recommendation: If you’re a fan of large birds of prey and/or can distinctly remember listening to My Side of the Mountain on tape in the car when you were younger, read this book. I spent the last year reading nonfiction essays for a literary journal (Fourth Genre) and I’m still not sure I could tell you exactly what makes good nonfiction, but I think this has got some of what I was looking for in essays. There is introspection, there is growth, there is a giant bird. If you’ve got a long a long trip coming up this summer pack this along, I think you’ll be glad you did.