Taming birds and grief in 'H is for Hawk'

'H is for Hawk' by Helen Macdonald
'H is for Hawk' by Helen Macdonald
Courtesy of Grove Atlantic

Grief can drive people to do strange things — like bring home a 10 week-old bird of prey.

That's the opening of "H is for Hawk," Helen Macdonald's vivid and winding memoir of raising a young goshawk while grappling with her father's unexpected death.

Macdonald is a writer and trained falconer, so this wasn't her first encounter with a feathered predator.

That said, she chose the goshawk, a breed known to be "bulkier, bloodier, deadlier [and] scarier" than others. Macdonald herself recites the birds' reputation: "murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign."

Thus begins Macdonald's difficult year of taming birds and taming grief. Her unusual story, and haunting language, has caught the eye of critics around the world. The New York Times wrote: "Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor's fierce essence — and her own — with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don't notice their astonishing engineering."

"Part memoir, part nature writing, part fiction, the book defies conventional classification. Despite this the reviews have been unanimous in their praise — the book is without doubt a triumph," wrote Salon.

Even the birding community has praised Macdonald's account of raising a hawk — and a difficult one at that. "Macdonald could certainly have taken the easy way out and spent that season of despair flying a well-tempered Peregrine Falcon or a Merlin," wrote falconer Tim Gallagher. "But she didn't."

Helen Macdonald joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to discuss her memoir and Mabel, the goshawk.

A caller told a story of also caring for animals during traumatic events:

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.