I recently finished the audiobook of H is for Hawk, written and read by Helen Macdonald, and immediately wanted to write about it on my blog, to share this extraordinary book with the world. Then I discovered that it was an international bestseller, winner of numerous awards, and apparently everyone already did know about it, deservedly so.
I was actually surprised to learn it was a bestseller, not because it isn’t good, but because it’s so unique, so personal, so specific. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it is a memoir about the author’s efforts to train a goshawk after her own father’s death, weaving in a biographical account of T.H. White and his less-successful attempts to train a goshawk while dealing with his own life issues.
What inspired me most about the book was that it combined such obscure and personal narratives into something universal. Most of us know very little about hawk training, much less about T.H. White. Yet these things were meaningful to the author, and brought out larger narrative themes that everyone can relate to, like love and loss, and primal instincts that have no name.
Some have argued that it isn’t really a nature book, because nature is something wild and untamed, while the main focus of this book is a tame and captive hawk, which does most of its hunting in suburbs and college campuses. But I think there is still a wildness to this hawk, and this book, which explores powerful themes of nature and what it means to be animal or human. Nature may be at its most elemental far from civilization, but sometimes a thing has to be pulled out of context in order to study it and see it in a new light. So while the book straddles the worlds of humans and animals, the themes of wildness and nature are still very much present.
So, what exactly constitutes “nature writing”? It depends on who you ask, and the topic has received much debate lately, but I will save that for another post. For now, you can read an interview with Helen Macdonald here, and also here.
And here’s a video interview at the Chicago Humanities Festival.