The Pope was in town while I was reading this book. So I had plenty of opportunity to contemplate just how inventive human beings can be when they set their mind to it. How otherwise to account for so many disparate viewpoints finding a common advocate in Francis?
It’s the same with books, as any honest English professor would tell you. It’s just that sometimes the blank slate the book offers is more apparent than others. In the present case you might say that the book offers 290 or so page-long opportunities to find whatever it is you’re looking for.
Before I get to why I say that it’s probably a good idea, as Glinda said, to begin at the beginning. That would be with book reviews, which I gave up reading decades ago. There are a lot of reasons for that. First and foremost, I didn’t want any preconceptions to stand between me and any book I chose to read.
But there were other reasons, too. I ‘graduated’ from the New York Times Book Review to The New York Review of Books. You are forgiven if you think the second title is a misprint of the first. TNYROB was formed during a newspaper strike in the early 1960s and probably seized at the ambiguity to sell copies.
(I know that’s cynical. Publishing is a business and business is cynical. Don’t even try to talk me out of that belief.)
In any case, the Review specialized in omnibus essays comprised of extensively cited and closely-read titles on a single subject or matter of controversy. It’s a form that The New Yorker has latterly adopted, although in more compressed form.
At the Review, such an undertaking was as close as commercial publishing ever gets to academic rigor. At the end of one of these magnum opuses, I’d be too drained to ever read another word about whatever I thought interested me in the first place. I also knew what the right-thinking crowd had agreed upon and that didn’t sit too well either.
So I discovered I had a choice: read books or read book reviews. I think you know where I landed on that one.
All that is to say, then, that it’s unusual for me to discover a book from a review. Yet that’s exactly what happened in this case. Paging through The New Yorker earlier this year I stumbled across it and, stopped by the Grafton-like title, read on. I was intrigued by the book’s premise and, facing the final days of my own dad’s life, made mental note of the title.
One reason the book serves so many different purposes is its form. It’s partly a recounting of training a goshawk to play its role in a hunting relationship. It’s partly a rumination on mankind’s relationship with nature. It’s partly a literary essay looking at a lesser-known work of T.H. White, the man who gave us Merlin and The Sword in the Stone. It’s partly a biographical sketch of White, too.
Oh, and it’s a memoir about dealing with sudden death.
So take your pick. Google the title and you’ll find blogposts and essays galore addressing every one of the approaches I just named and a few more.
Macdonald is an academic. I am distinctly unclear as to whether she is a graduate student or a post-doc. If you pressed me, I might say her area of study was literary (she admits to doing a thesis on T.H. White) but it could as easily be history. She is, let us say, comfortable with ambiguity.
She is also a falconer from way back, as long as way back is defined as childhood. That alone is unusual, at least in my limited experience. And that’s how she encountered White, because before he struck gold with the Arthurian legends, he was a teacher at a boarding school who quit to train hawks and wrote a book about it.
And not just any hawk, but a goshawk. It turns out there’s a class aspect to keeping birds of prey and folks lower on what we Americans like to call the socio-economic spectrum were more likely to keep these forest feeders. That bird is the subject of White’s book and the book the focus of Macdonald’s thesis on White.
White, it turns out, was a closeted, perhaps celibate, sado-masochistically oriented homosexual which has no bearing on either training the hawk or writing about Arthur. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the idea that some personal characteristics are so important they overshadow and inform everything else.
I’m not sure Macdonald would go that far but she’s not going to upset the established wisdom apple cart either. She is a good academic with all that entails. And I can see how an editor would seize on that angle to, pardon the pun, goose sales. There is an awful lot of White in this book and a lot of it is speculative.
What set this whole project in motion was the untimely death of Macdonald’s father. She turns, in her depression, to the hawk trying to escape people by melding with nature. It doesn’t work–it can’t work–and she discovers as much.
But this is not a memoir of unexpected death the way Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking is. Didion struck me in the chest and never let me up. Macdonald, by contrast, wants us to know this was hard for her and made her realize many things. I’m sure it was and I’m certain it did.
Still, there are moments, especially when she writes about loss. Here’s a bit that struck me particularly strongly:
We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost. (p. 129)
We already have saints and philosophers. We even have Didion. So there’s room for a Helen Macdonald–just another of us trying to figure out how to muddle along in the face of loss that almost makes it all seem senseless.