Helen and Her Hawk


“. . . her name drops into my head. Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear.   An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name.   There is something of the grandmother about it: antimacassars and afternoon teas. There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name. Call a hawk Tiddles and it will be a formidable hunter; call it Spitfire or Slayer and it will probably refuse to fly at all.” —Helen Macdonald


Mabel is at the center of Macdonald’s captivating memoir about the upheaval of her life when she suddenly and unexpectedly lost her father.

In the weeks after his death Macdonald purchased Mabel, a northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), and began training her to hunt.  Even though she had years of experience raising birds of prey, it was still a big decision.  According to The Sibley Field Guide to Birds, the goshawk is the largest of the accipiters—fully grown, 21 inches tall with a wingspan of 41 inches.  The bird is also notoriously fierce and difficult to train.

Wondering what it would be like to have a Mabel in my house, I got out a tape measure.  Standing on my kitchen counter, she could look me in the eye and demand a piece of raw steak and, no doubt, she would receive it.

Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird and also an experienced falconer, wrote this review which illuminates the challenges Macdonald faced.  But even for those of us who will never don a falcon’s glove, Helen and Mabel’s journey is compelling.  Their story stayed with me long after I read the final page.

The paperback edition of H Is for Hawk was released in March and for the last couple of weeks Macdonald was on a book tour of the western U.S.—Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver.  I was looking forward to her Santa Fe visit.  She stepped on the little wooden stage at Collected Works last Saturday evening and charmed the standing-room only crowd with tales of her life with Mabel.

My favorite was her description of walking around Cambridge with Mabel on her gloved fist, overhearing mothers warn their children not to get too close to the “hawk lady.”




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