LONDON (Reuters) - British author Helen Macdonald’s book “H is for Hawk” telling the poignant story of how she trained a falcon as a way to deal with the grief of her father’s sudden death won the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014 on Tuesday.
Macdonald, a writer, poet, historian and affiliated history lecturer at Cambridge University, has said that training the predatory goshawk she called Mabel introduced her to “a very strange world” and that she found herself becoming “less and less human” the more she learned about the bird’s habits.
Speaking after her selection was announced, she told Reuters that winning was “an astonishing emotional experience” and that she’d been delighted to make the shortlist, let alone win.
She added that her work “was more of a hybrid book, and I think this is something that’s increasingly happening in non-fiction.
“It’s both a memoir of my grief at the death of my father and about how I tried to train a goshawk to deal with that - which is not something I recommend, by the way,” she said.
She said she’d been impressed by the number of people who read the book even though they had no particular interest in birds or nature.
“They are finding something in it for them and one of the things I really like about this process of writing is once you’ve finished, once you’ve released the book into the world, then the people make it their own,” she said.
In announcing the prize, which carries a 20,000-pound cash award, the prize jury said the book “tells the story of how the death of Helen’s father triggered her to follow a childhood dream and become a falconer, obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk”.
“The book is an unflinchingly honest account of her struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming and her own untaming.
Macdonald also incorporated in her book the biography of novelist T. H. White, author of ‘The Goshawk’, which describes his own struggle to train a hawk.
White, who died in 1964, was the author of a series of four books about the Arthurian legends, known as “The Once and Future Kings”, that inspired the musical and film “Camelot”.
He also wrote about training a goshawk in the 1930s, but the bird escaped and his work was not published until the 1950s as “The Goshawk”, which Macdonald has said inspired her passion for hawks.
Clair Tomalin, chair of judges, in a statement called it “a book unlike any other”.
“Writing about wild life and the environment has never been better or better informed than this,” she said.
The award to Macdonald, whose previous books include “Falcon” and “Shaler’s Fish”, is the first time that two women have won the Samuel Johnson Prize in succession.
Last year’s winner was Lucy Hughes-Hallett for “The Pike” about Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, whose ideas had an influence on the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
The other five shortlisted titles were: John Campbell’s biography “Roy Jenkins”; Marion Coutts’s “The Iceberg: A Memoir”; Greg Grandin’s “The Empire of Necessity”; Alison Light’s “Common People”; and Caroline Moorehead’s “Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France”.
The Samuel Johnson Prize is open to books in English on current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts published in Britain by writers of any nationality.
Reporting by Michael Roddy, editing by Andrew Hay