Notes from the Book Group on June 26, 2015

Recollections of the Meeting of the Bryn Mawr Book Group

Friday, June 26 2015 for H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Present: Sally Bold, Roo Dane, Anne Ipsen Goldman (hostess), Sandra Lovell, Dorianne Low, Marcella Musgrove, Katherine O’Connor, Barbara Powell, Dodie Rees, Corny/Cornelia Robart. Supportive companion host Jay Goldman

Anne and Jay did a marvelous reception for our Book Group – cheese, grape leaves, salad fixings, etc. complemented tasty pot-luck offerings by the group. And every dessert was enhanced by Roo’s berryful bowl.

As for the Hawk book:

Not everyone was enthralled. Some quickly had more than enough of hawking; some had more than enough of T.H. White with or without his interest in hawking. Was T.H. White included to give literary weight to the narrative? To contrast the techniques – and maybe the fate – of hawk-handlers? Some of us struggled to finish, perhaps for the sake of the group discussion (anasa kata).

FYI, falcon kills are very bloody. Helen’s Mabel, a goshawk [goss-hawk, from Old English goose + hawk], is one of the most savage of the hawks and falcons. Those who have witnessed a goshawk kill do not forget the sight (as on the lawn of the Cambridge library!) There must be great trust between the keeper and the animal, as with every wild species brought to serve mankind. Fashions in falconry change over the years as have fashions in correcting schoolchildren who do not obey. Enough about hawking.

In this carefully crafted memoir we are artfully entangled in a double or even triple helix: 1. Helen and her loving father (who dies on page one); 2. Helen and Mabel the Goshawk; and 3. T.H. White and a) his drastically dysfunctional childhood vs. Macdonald’s cherishing parents; b) his brilliant mind vs. his indifferent scholarship; c) his reclusive life preferences; d) women, who repulsed him and whom he avoided for their way of interfering with human relationships.

Helen rejected any glamorizing of her hawk, albeit a creature of medieval and exotic origins and heritage. “Animal stories end badly,” she wrote. She was neurotic, depressive, a psychological minefield prone to illness.

She was a keen observer, however, like her father, an aerial photographer. Could the memory of her father who hid behind the lens and thus distanced his emotions from the bloody war, have contributed to this faculty?  Not at all spiritually inclined, Helen experiences a mystical rebirth through the farewell to Mabel, the eclipsing, molting hawk, her truest companion through bouts of depression and also of joy. She, unlike White, becomes healed.

Let me say here that the story line, we agreed, is secondary to the curative, emotional journey back to Helen’s childhood. Helen was happy with loving parents, whereas White’s young years were filled with emotional and physical danger from his warring ones.

The writing is filled with beautiful descriptions of the English countryside (as usual, a primary protagonist in so many English stories). It is also very intense, like a play in which the actors shout every line. Finally, as one reader remarked, we should all learn to regard our own pets by their body language. Of course we do, but do we seek beyond the obvious food/escape/anger/fear/pat/pleasure patterns? Who has noticed how a cat deals with grief (if it does…)?