Book Review: The Goshawk

The Goshawk, by T.H. White, recounts the author’s experience of trying to train a wild hawk. The theme of the tale is man against nature—nature, in this case, being a hunting bird. When White decided to train the Goshawk, he had no practical knowledge of the methods used, relying on old books of falconry, and letters sent out to well-known falconers across Europe.

As a nature study, The Goshawk is fascinating: the descriptions of the hawk itself, the other birds that White encounters in the training process, and the woods and fields in which the training of the hawk takes place are wonderfully picturesque and precise. These details come from the day-book which White kept while he was taming Gos (as he calls the Goshawk), and the finished story retains the feeling of a diary, giving the reader a feeling of immediacy and personal connection with the falconer and his falcon. Be warned, if you are squeamish: there is a LOT of raw meat in this book. Feeding the bird is an important aspect of its taming, and White spares no details.

There are many ups and downs throughout the book. The first step to train Gos is to keep him awake for thee days and nights, until he is willing to sit on his owner’s fist without protest. This requires the falconer to stay awake as well, an enormous test of endurance. White shows the taming of the goshawk as a battle with only one winner: either man or bird will give in.

Unfortunately, after all the work to “man” the hawk (teach it to accept human activity), Gos escapes, by breaking the cord attached to his jesses. Up to this point, I found the writing wonderful, and the account exciting, but after Gos is lost the description of snares set up, and the increasingly hopeless attempts to recapture either Gos or some other hawks that live in the area becomes tedious. Nothing is happening, no progress made. I kept hoping that all this was leading up to a miraculous recapture, but it never materializes.

After several months, White obtains another hawk, and closes the book with a brief recounting of getting her to catch a rabbit, the last stage of training, which he had never reached with Gos. Lacking the earlier connection built between the reader and Gos, this section of the book was detached and fell flat for me.

This book reminded me of the frustrations and wonders of writing non-fiction. The vivid first half would not have been possible without its basis in actual events, but the disappointment of the second half could have been avoided, changed into a triumph rather than a failure. I wish the ending had been different, but since real life cannot be changed, the book would have lost its integrity, so in another way I’m glad it was left alone.

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