H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Apologies for the very long review that follows, but I just loved this book so much.


Originally published in 2014, H Is for Hawk is a blend of memoir, nature writing and literary musings – a work of creative nonfiction that sounds made for me, in fact. Why did it take me so long? I have heard about this book for all these years but for some reason held off. Maybe it was simply the perversity of resisting reading something that sounds so obviously right. (Why do we do this??) Recently I read something (can’t remember what!) that prompted me to finally get into this book, and I’m sorry it took me so long. This is, indeed, a perfect book for me. It’s likely to wind up the best of the year; I’m putting it alongside Fire Season and Things That Are.

Helen Macdonald is a research fellow at Cambridge University when her father dies suddenly. She has also been a passionate lifelong falconer. One bird she’d never worked with before was the goshawk, a famously difficult bird to train and fly. But after her father’s death – reeling with grief – she feels the need to give this challenge a go. While navigating grief and struggling with her new goshawk, she comes across an old book: T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which she read (along with so many other bird and animal books) as a child, and found fault with then. Revisiting it, she still finds much that troubles her about White’s bungled, amateur efforts with his own gos (he knew a fraction of what Macdonald does when he entered unwisely into the fray), but also finds a kindred in suffering. The book that eventually comes out of this process, H Is for Hawk, is a braid of three threads: the author’s staggering grief at losing her beloved father; her time with the hawk she will eventually call Mabel; and her study of T.H. White’s life, falconry, and philosophies.

She blends these threads beautifully, moving smoothly between them in ways that always feel natural. The woman who is training the hawk is also the woman mourning her father, moving in a dream state through a world that no longer makes sense; in rereading The Goshawk she naturally reflects on her own falconry and her own gos, and on her childhood (when she first read the book) and therefore on her early relationship with her parents, and therefore on her father again – it’s all circular; it’s all linked. Macdonald must also consider the unhappy life of White (whom you may recognize as the author of The Once and Future King and others), a problematic figure in his political leanings, who wrestled with his own sexuality. I’m still describing Macdonald’s subject matter; but the seamless weaving of memoir, grief, falconry, literature, and history is just part of the charm. It’s her writing, and her stark, honest portrayal of the mad human experience, that shines.

It’s an astonishingly crafted book, too. I marveled, for example, at how it opens. Check out the first half of the first paragraph:

Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghosts here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry. There are spaces built for air-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli behind twelve-foot fences, tattoo parlours and US Air Force golf courses. In spring it’s a riot of noise: constant plane traffic, gas-guns over pea fields, woodlarks and jet engines. It’s called the Brecklands – the broken lands – and it’s where I ended up that morning, seven years ago, in early spring, on a trip I hadn’t planned at all.

And then the way the first chapter ends, after describing a piece of reindeer moss picked up on that trip.

Three weeks later, it was the reindeer moss I was looking at when my mother called and told me my father was dead.

There’s something very neat and circular about this chapter and how it establishes the interconnection between the natural world, and the narrator’s walk looking for goshawks, with the loss of her father. When I read this first chapter, I had little feeling for the shape of the whole book; I was impressed at the time with what that opening and closing promised, and fulfilled. I felt it was a great start. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can see what a *perfect* opening it was, and the promises it makes and fulfills for the whole.

I feel that Macdonald views and portrays her subjects in fresh and new ways. Her father’s death (by natural causes) she experiences as if it were a violence or a natural disaster, with all the power and senselessness of weather. I appreciate the way she describes Mabel, her own goshawk – and other birds, but especially Mabel – the attention and detail with which she evokes the complications of color and feathers. “Formidable talons, wicked, curved black beak, sleek, café-au-lait front streaked thickly with cocoa-coloured teardrops, looking for all the world like some cappuccino samurai.” Indeed, part of what I loved so much about those opening sentences of the first chapter was the level of detail. She’s concerned as well with class and gender in the world of falconry and beyond; she muses on her awkward childhood (and her dear, tolerant parents), and racism and fascism in both historic and contemporary Britain. The best books, I think, open up like this. Falconry and the loss of a beloved parent lead naturally to British colonial history, and why not?

This is absolutely in part a book about the grieving process, descriptive rather than prescriptive. It reminds me strongly of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which also conjures the muddy, dreamy, drugged madness of grief. But I felt far closer to Macdonald’s narrator than I ever did to Didion’s. I just like Helen better (sorry, Joan). She successfully defamiliarizes her own world by becoming (it seems) part hawk. Part of the training process involves holing up together, falconer and hawk, in the quiet and the dark, to bond and establish trust; when they must emerge, the narrator finds the outside world as strange as the hawk does. “She watches a woman throwing a ball to her dog on the grass, and I watch too, as baffled by what she’s doing as the hawk is. I stare at traffic lights before I remember what they are. Bicycles are spinning mysteries of glittering metal.” This seems a necessary part of Helen’s grieving, but it nearly breaks her, too. “The day-book that records White’s long, lost battle with Gos is not simply about his hawk,” writes Helen, and we sense that she knows the same is true of her book.

This is a masterpiece of writing about the natural world and the points where the wild and the human are the same. It’s a masterpiece of lovely writing, period. It’s a feeling and singular evocation of grief, which I understand to be experienced differently in each instance. It’s a thoughtful consideration of many intersecting threads about the human experience and history, including some of our thorniest issues. The narrator is hard on herself but also winds up with some healing, and some hopeful outlooks – I could see this being a difficult but finally therapeutic read for someone suffering a great loss. It’s a gorgeous and profound piece of literature, the kind I had to pause frequently (at least after every chapter, sometimes within them – and they’re short chapters generally) to let sink in, to take breaks. It will stick with me for a long time.


Rating: 10 drawings.

Spirits in the Sky: Northern Lights Photography by Paul Zizka

Nature and adventure photographer Paul Zizka offers stunning images and narrative in Spirits in the Sky: Northern Lights Photography. Photos with brief, descriptive captions take center stage. They are accompanied by a few concise sections of text, which provide an overview of what the northern lights (or aurora borealis) are; some of the myths used to explain them; and the stories behind Zizka’s work in capturing these breathtaking images. Wildlife, human models, outdoor sports and self-portraits appear among the images, but it is the wildly colorful lights themselves–in the striking landscapes of Canada, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands–that make these photos unforgettable. Spectacular scenery and an elusive natural phenomenon combine in special ways in this gorgeous collection of art photography.


This review originally ran in the November 4, 2022 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 7 moments.

Odder by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Charles Santoso

I fell in love with this book as reviewed by a colleague of mine at Shelf Awareness (here), and bought it for the six- and ten-year-old sisters who are my friends. But when it arrived I couldn’t let it go and so I read it first.

It’s every bit as delightful as it sounds in the above review, and I’m so glad I picked it up, and glad that I have young friends to inspire me. I loved the storytelling style: easy-reading, brief, free verse poems that speak plainly but also with lyricism (Odder’s front paws when she was just a pup were “dream-busy / small and soft as / a toddler’s mittens”). I loved Odder, of course, her name and her personality and frank responses to the world. What do I know about sea otters? but this story and characterization felt true to the natural world, and at the same time, offered many lessons applicable to other life forms. “Why simply dive when she could dazzle?” The ocean isn’t about morality, and there are no villains here; after a shark attack, Odder doesn’t blame the shark. “She’s seen enough to know / that this is how life is, / and this is how death comes.” (Spoiler alert: death has not come for Odder yet.) There are some excellent how-to poems: “how to rescue a stranded otter” offers important points about not rushing in; there are two versions of “how to say goodbye to an otter,” for both humans and otters. There’s a neat little poem called “keystones” that teach the meaning of ‘keystone species’ succinctly, which is a fine example of how Odder gives both naturalist lessons and broader ones.

I’m charmed, and so happy I spent some time with this book. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 9 clams.

rerun: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors

Trying something new here, friendly readers. Without getting too far into it all, the last weeks have been a stressful time for me, for both personal and work-related reasons. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed, and I’m in danger of getting behind here at the blog. Of the irons in my fire, this is not one I really want adding to the stress. So, an experiment. On occasional blog-post-days, I’m going to rerun old content. We are nearly 12 years old here at pagesofjulia! My hope is that some newer readers may be exposed to reviews they’ve not seen before, and I get another chance to expose you to (or remind you of) some of my favorite books. If this is old news, obviously, skip it, as you please. (Bonus: I had fun going way back to look for reviews to rerun.) I’ll try to keep the editing of my original reviews to a minimum.

Naturally we’re beginning with one of my all-time favorites, Phil Connors’ brilliant first book, Fire Season. I first reviewed this book in May of 2011. You can also read my father’s review, and friend Tassava’s, of same.

Please enjoy.


This is an amazing book. The first sentences immediately grabbed me. Connors works summers in a teeny, tiny tower room way up in the sky in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, as a fire lookout. His job is to spot smoke and call it in for control or “management” of the fires. But his “field notes” tell so much more than the story of his career as a lookout. This is the story of his time alone in the Gila, and of the visitors he receives and the visits he pays back to town; it’s the story of his and his dog Alice’s interactions with nature. It’s the story of fire and smoke and the Forest Service’s management of fire. It’s a history of fire, of the Forest Service, of the Gila, of so very many aspects of our nation’s history, and the natural history of the southwest. Connors discusses the varied reactions the government has had to fire: the policy of fire suppression, consistently and in every case, versus the concept of “controlled” or “prescribed” burns, and the ongoing debates. He contemplates society, its benefits and our occasional desire to escape it. He discusses his unique model of marriage, in which he spends some five months a year living alone and mostly out of touch. He also relates ecological issues like fire as a natural control mechanism, erosion, and the preferences of flora and fauna. And more.

I found Fire Season astounding and important. There’s a zen-like balance in it. Connors is a rather balanced man, in that he still craves human contact; he’s not an entirely back-to-the-wild isolationist, nor does he fail to appreciate cold beer and a variety of media. But he achieves a special and rare state of commune with nature, too. His writing, for me, parallels this balance. He can wax philosophical, crafting lyrical, beautiful odes and hymns of reverence to nature, fire, and life; but he never gets overly wordy, tempering the poetry with (still beautifully written) narrative history.

Connors tells so many little stories I would love to pull out of this book and share as vignettes. For example, the story of Apache Chief Victorio’s last stand (that lasted over a year) in the vicinity of the lookout tower where Connors is stationed:

That September day in 1879, on the headwaters of Ghost Creek, marks a peculiar moment in America’s westward march: black soldiers, most of them former slaves or the sons of slaves, commanded by white officers, guided by Navajo scouts, hunting down Apaches to make the region safe for Anglo and Hispanic miners and ranchers. The melting pot set to boil.

Or the history of the smokejumpers, which I didn’t know before – the parachuting firefighters who pre-date paratroopers and taught them their trade. Or the tale of the Electric Cowboy. Or the story of the little fawn. I cried, mostly because I empathized. Really, it could be read as a series of anecdotes; but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The larger story is important, too. I even glimpsed traces of the training I’ve received in trail-building and (more broadly) land management.

The history, the lore, the anecdotes, the author’s relationship with nature, his relationship with his wife, the landscape of the Gila, the details about local species of bird, fish, and game… there are so many gems in this thoughtful, loving, lovely book. I am not doing it justice. It’s a very special book and I strongly recommend this to everyone, no matter who you are. But I especially recommend it if you are… a nature lover, a hiker, a dog lover, a government bureaucrat, a pyromaniac, an environmentalist, a city dweller, a romantic, a firefighter, a skydiver, a cribbage player, a whiskey drinker, a writer, a loner, a philosopher, a historian, a student, or a teacher.

This review originally ran before I instituted a rating system, but obviously –


Rating: 10 phobias.

The Marsh Queen by Virginia Hartman

Mystery, romance, conspiracy, family drama, natural history and art combine in this excursion into a decades-old suspicious death in the swamplands of northern Florida.

Loni was 12 years old when her beloved father headed into the northern Florida marsh in his johnboat and did not return. At 36, she is working her dream job as a natural history artist at the Smithsonian, ignoring her past and her remaining family as hard as she can, until her younger brother calls to insist she come home to help care for their mother. The Marsh Queen, Virginia Hartman’s fast-paced, compelling first novel, sees the prodigal daughter return to the swamps, the family she left behind, the mystery of her father’s death and the possibility of a fresh start.

“Daddy wasn’t just a visitor to the swamp, he was a part of the place.” Loni’s father, Boyd, was a Fish & Game officer, a fisherman, a devoted husband and father and a most unlikely suicide, although that was the rumored–and covered up–cause of his death. Loni was his usual companion in the swamps, uninterested in fishing but a passionate and talented illustrator of the birds they watched together. As an adult, she’s kept that passion, but grown distant from her brother and especially from her always-prickly mother, Ruth, now suffering from dementia. A serious gardener and herbalist, Ruth struggles with painful secrets long kept from her daughter. Loni’s leave of absence from the Smithsonian comes at an especially stressful time at work, and returning home is always painful; nothing about this trip feels right. But Loni canoes the swamps, discovers family secrets, investigates her father’s death, finds herself involved in fresh intrigues and dangers–and meets a handsome stranger. The Smithsonian, and leaving Florida behind, have always been central to Loni’s life plan, but as she sinks back into the quirks of family and home, she may just find a new way.

Hartman’s descriptive writing and clear passion for her subject are on best display when Loni immerses herself in the natural environment, in her art and in her memories of Boyd. In her contemporary relationships, Loni can be frustratingly obtuse and lacking in self-awareness. As the enigma around Boyd’s suspicious death gets more complex, the plotting can feel a little unwieldy. But the subversion of Loni’s expectations is frequently refreshing; a few secondary characters offer intriguing perspectives, and the novel’s framing details of Florida marshland, ornithology, museum work and fine art are expertly and beautifully drawn. The Marsh Queen is unwavering in its lush, finely detailed, appreciative portrayal of a distinctive natural setting, and ends on a redemptive, even inspirational note.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 herons.

Watercolor in Nature: Paint Woodland Wildlife and Botanicals with 20 Beginner-Friendly Projects by Rosalie Haizlett

This book was a perfect birthday gift. Rosalie Haizlett is a local/regional artist from West Virginia whose work I’m familiar with (it’s in local coffee shops and gift shops, and I’ve got some of her stickers) and and admire. I’ve done a little painting with acrylics over the last decade or so, but no watercolors since kindergarten. And this instructional book is positively wonderful.

Things I love about Watercolor in Nature: clarity and ease of use. Haizlett opens with very brief (one page) sections on how she became an artist and how to use this book (slow down, breathe, take breaks! and, take it in order: each project builds on the one before). She goes over materials, colors, and basic techniques. And then there are the projects, 20 of them in two groups: ten use pencil and ink and ten are watercolor-only. Each adds a new skill to the painter’s toolbox, so it does make sense to take them in order. And the way she walks you through each is perfect – even the most intimidated learner can do this, because she breaks it into intuitive steps, always with images. If you just follow the directions you end up with more or less the intended outcome – that easy. (I say more or less because these are paintings of nature, which is asymmetrical and changeable, and each individual painting is a little different, as it should be.) I was a little intimidated by Haizlett’s lovely art – and another benefit to this book is that it’s filled with her art! – but she made it super easy and friendly; I was never confused. I am a little tempted to cut out some of these pages and put them on my walls. But I’m making my own art, too.

Totally, 100% recommend this to anyone interested in learning watercolor with natural subjects. I’m extremely pleased. After playing around in this book, I trust and like its narrator completely; I feel like she’s a friend. Delightful.


Rating: 9 wild blueberries.

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

I cannot recommend this to you enough: find something that you believe in, right down deep in the depths of your silvery plumage, and then throw your heart at it, blood and valves and veins and all. Because I did this, the world, though brambled and frothing at the mouth, looked more vibrant; blues were bluer, and even the fetid puddles that collected under rusting cars tasted as sweet as summer wine.

I have so much to say about this book, but in trying to avoid spoilers I think much of it should remain unsaid here.

Hollow Kingdom is set in contemporary Seattle, and its protagonist and most-of-the-time narrator is a domesticated crow. (Chapters do alternate perspectives, so we get a handful of other voices – very colorful ones that make enormous contributions, and come from all over the world. But our star keeps the mic for the majority of these pages.) His name is S.T., which is short for Shit Turd (naturally), and he has enjoyed a good life with his human, Big Jim, and a bloodhound named Dennis with a deathly fear of windshield wipers and alpacas. The book begins “after,” however, and S.T. is here to tell us what happened to Big Jim and his neighbors: we meet the beloved human only in past tense. He got sick and started acting strangely (more strangely than usual), and then his eyeball fell out, and then things went from bad to worse. Eventually S.T. is forced to venture out of the home and into the wider world, where he’ll have to interact with wild crows, for whom he feels mostly contempt, as well as many other forms of nature, likewise distasteful. And he takes Dennis with him, although he feels a similar disdain for the (not so bright) dog, at least at first. S.T. mostly knows the outside world from television and the opinionated Big Jim. And now he’s up against the worst of times with his limited knowledge and his distrust of the natural world – which may be all that’s left.

Among many remarkable features of this unusual novel, I enjoyed S.T.’s voice: salty, foul-mouthed, neurotic, loyal, loving, admiring of humans (whom he calls MoFos – Big Jim’s influence again) and their inventions, sarcastic, self-deprecating and hilarious. He hates penguins (“hambeast-bellied egg timers”) and says of Dennis, “Man’s best friend indeed. More like man’s neediest parasite that would trade you for a bull-penis dog chewy at the drop of a hat.” Squirrels are “five-star sexual deviants” (borne out by later events). The other voices that occasionally interweave with S.T.’s chapters are equally singular, apt, and surprising: there is a Scottish cow named Angus, a young camel in Dubai, and an irascible, tyrannical cat right there in Seattle, among others. (Genghis Cat thinks of his humans as Mediocre Servants, or “dildo-nosed potatoes.”) A very large part of S.T.’s ongoing struggle is wrapped up in his confusions about identity: unmistakably crow, he believes himself to be an honorary MoFo, meant to be human but trapped in black feathers; in the new world, though, he’s going to have to make new allegiances with those who look more like himself. His relationship with Dennis likewise evolves: he begins scornful of the bloodhound’s apparently lesser intellect, but their partnership deepens in tough times, and he discovers that even if Dennis does not talk like the crow does (and as most animals in this world do), he may have a lot to offer. The lessons abound, but Hollow Kingdom never loses its joyful, wacky ridiculousness, even as it gains in wisdom and profundity. Sounds like a hell of a thing, right? This is an unusual and startling book from the first pages, and keeps on surprising to the end.

I also marveled at how many notes I made as I read. I generally make a few notes, but this tight-packed bookmark with overflow onto the other side is rare.

Many of those notes I will not be sharing here because I’m avoiding spoilers. But I can point out that S.T. has a vocabulary: I had to look up formicary, synanthropic, fuliginous, voltaic, collacine, pedipalp, myotonic, and chatoyant. I also loved his use of so many collective nouns: clowder of cats, murmuration of starlings, collacine of maggots, quarrel of sparrows, and of course the constant reference to S.T.’s own murder (of crows) – these are just a few. I’m a big fan of collective nouns.

Hollow Kingdom approaches a few commonly-occurring incidents in literature (which I am still not naming here) with truly fresh eyes. The voice of a domesticated crow navigating an identity crisis in the context of a wider-world crisis is new and inventive. This book is filled with tragedy, but is simultaneously hilarious, hopeful, even joyful.

Trust, it turned out, was a very beautiful and fragile thing with a taste like wild raspberries and experienced only by the very brave.

There are Big Thoughts alongside toilet humor, and commentary on the importance of relationships even in the most bizarrely changing world imaginable. Lots to love. Buxton has a rare and fascinating mind and I love the weird voices she’s created here; I’ll definitely look for more from her.


Rating: 8 Cheetos.

The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums by Amy Leach

Amy Leach’s signature playful style, joyful humor and wise questioning of the universe delight and fascinate in these 23 essays, her second such collection.

With The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums, Amy Leach (Things That Are) takes her readers on a playful, rigorous, mind-bending romp through human nature, the natural world, spirituality and more. Her perfectly singular voice sings the most surprising notes in an imaginative blend of silliness and seriousness.

This sophomore collection of 23 essays opens with its title offering, in which the narrator welcomes all 20 quintillion animals to the Everybody Ensemble. How will they be arranged and organized? What songs will they perform? Leach glories in lists of the unlikely, the weird and the underappreciated: “speckled and plain, perfect and imperfect, indigo-feathered, green-skinned, orange-toed, squashed of face, cracked of shell, miniature of heart, young as ducklings, old as hills, everybody raise your sweet and scrapey, bangy, twangy, sundry, snorty voices.” This embrace of enormous, diverse multiplicity serves as appropriate introduction to an ecstatic exploration of “everybodyism.”

Leach employs a huge range of rhetorical devices while retaining a sense of whimsy and plain fun. Her genius perhaps shows best in her selection of the singular, startlingly unexpected detail. Adept as she is at wordplay, Leach’s writing goes much deeper than that, wondering and speculating at larger questions. In “The Wanderer,” she considers how to critique the extravaganza show called Earth, “already in production for five million years now” but unfinished. The artist of this show has strengths (facility and versatility), but “imagination unchecked can result in a mishmash.” If only “we could just establish the genre, whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy or romance or what,” we could make sense of the effort. Don’t be misled by her joyful absurdity or wit with words: Leach is deadly serious in her questioning of the cosmos, Earth’s composer and whether “even with all the troubles of our time, maybe it can still be fun to be a frog.”

“O Latitudo” ponders the imagined choice of a supervolcano: to erupt or to self-suppress, “consequently composing a gassy, burpy, muddy Ode to Joy.” “In Lieu of a Walrus” offers a list of writers to whom one might turn when the first-choice interlocuter is unavailable, including Hafiz, Ovid and God. “Green Man” honors the mesquite tree, loved by few, who has been given “the freedom to dig his own disputable way.” “Beasts in the Margins” considers the more incongruous illustrations of 14th-century books of psalms: “Who let the monsters into the psalter?” These and other essays range widely in subject matter but accrue to a meaningful whole. Leach is smart, effervescent, earnest and funny. Her voice is perfectly unmistakable, her themes expansive; her prose glitters. The Everybody Ensemble is a revelation.


This review originally ran in the October 14, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 extracommercial tigers.

Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

I had not thought of Gary Paulsen in years, until I saw the Shelf Awareness review of this new book. (Hat tip to my colleague Jen Forbus for that review.) Paulsen might have been the first author I really fixated on; I remember setting out to own all his books, and while I didn’t get very far (maybe six or eight of them), I’m pretty sure I wrote “Julie’s Gary Paulsen library” or some such inside the cover of each one, and had them set up on their own little shelf. Early signs of something, there. My favorite was Hatchet, of course, and its sequel; and I vividly remember a scene from the beginning of another book where the narrator watches a… chipmunk? eating another creature, blood down its front… what book was that?

Anyway – when I saw that he’s returned with a memoir of his own childhood, I was sold. And let me tell you. This book had me entranced from the opening lines. I wept.

Gone to the Woods has an innocence and a simplicity built into its writing style and the value system, I think, of its narrator. This makes it accessible to younger readers, but not at all to them alone. I think this is a memoir for everyone. Paulsen tells his story in the third person, calling his protagonist only ‘the boy,’ although the name ‘Gary’ is used once or twice by other characters. This helps to give the boy an elemental quality, like he’s sort of an archetypal boy, although his story is very specific. When the book opens, he is five years old, living in Chicago with his mother in 1944. She has a factory job, and coming from a small farm in northern Minnesota, is “not even remotely prepared to resist the temptations of the big city.” She lives in the bars and does not parent her small son, who she’s trained to perform for the men who try to win her favor. Grandmother hears of this lifestyle and is “critical, then concerned, and finally… past horrified and well into scandalized.” Her solution colors the boy’s method of problem-solving for life: “If it doesn’t work Here, go over There.”

The first adventure of the book, then, is the five-year-old boy’s solo journey by train from Chicago to International Falls, Minnesota. This takes several days and involves a train absolutely jam-packed with severely injured soldiers, smelling of and oozing pain and death, so that the boy is physically ill from it all – because didn’t I say, his father, who he’s never met, is a soldier off in the war. The boy becomes stuck in a train toilet, among other things, and observes out the train window the woods that will become his sanctuary. By the time he arrives at his aunt and uncle’s farm he is wrung out with exhaustion, trauma, and confusion. But the farm will be a perfect place for him, the first place he feels he belongs, is valued, is taught. He’s given his own room and bed. It’s lovely. Then it’s taken away from him.

I’ll stop summarizing here. The boy’s upbringing is one trauma after another, including a few years on the streets of American-occupied Manila, and a continuing absence of parental concern. I appreciate that the narrator is slow to judge his parents, and I think it would have been easy (narratively speaking) to be ugly about the mother’s drinking and many boyfriends, for example, but neither the young boy nor the adult man who writes these lines takes that easy road. (At least until the teenager’s perspective, at which point he thinks of both parents as vipers. But this is about the damage they do to him, rather than some puritanical judgment of mom’s moral choices.) He is an unjudgmental creature in general. Paulsen is wonderfully good at the innocent child’s perspective, elements of which are present in the teenager too.

Trauma after trauma, but with a few bright points, like the aunt and uncle in the Minnesota woods, and a saintly librarian when he is thirteen years old who makes him a gift of notebook and pencil, for whom this book might be considered a gift in return. And the woods and rivers and streams, which are always a bright point. From age five, the boy learns that the woods will allow him to take care of himself, even when he lives in a city again, keeping to the alleys and nights to avoid bullies, and escaping to the stream where he can fish for food or shoot squirrels and rabbits when his parents fail to provide for him. Even in Manila, a city of a certain sort of trauma (truly, the violence and death this child witnesses by his sixth birthday is unfathomable), he finds beauty and human kindness.

At times the events were hard for me to take in, and I wondered if younger readers were really the right audience for this. But on reflection, I think Paulsen offers just enough. I think children might take away what they need from this book – I’m no proponent of censoring life’s pains from kids – and it’s the adult mind and perspective that makes it even harder to read, if that makes sense.

The story is harrowing but also lovely, always riveting, and an important testimonial from a generation that we will eventually lose access to. It is excruciatingly beautiful in how it’s told. The immediacy of traveling with the boy is heart-rending and direct. I can’t imagine how this book could be improved upon.


Rating: 10 willow branches.

The Oak Papers by James Canton

These tender ruminations on oak trees, connections and possibilities will appeal to nature lovers, philosophers and seekers.

James Canton (Ancient Wonderings; Out of Essex) spends hours, days, months and years with one particular oak tree. Moved by its power and continually fascinated by its individuality, Canton undertook a study of the connection between oaks and people. After consulting history, mythology, spirituality, science, a number of individual woodmen and -women, and more time spent in the company of oaks, he offers The Oak Papers, part personal reflection and part research project.

The Honywood Oak, at the Marks Hall Estate near London, draws Canton in. During a period of personal turmoil, he finds himself sitting under this massive 800-year-old tree, “a mere sapling when the Magna Carta was signed.” He watches birds and insects and hares, and the changing seasons; he finds himself returning just to spend time with the Honywood Oak: “I sit on the bench and wonder a duality of desires: to care for the oak and to be cared for by the oak.” He feels a healing effect. Canton’s more purposeful studies begin in the company of the estate’s “curator of trees,” and in his readings: Dante, T.S. Eliot, Pliny, Shakespeare, Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Gary Snyder and the legends of Druids and Green Men (and Green Women and Children). He gets to know the Honywood Oak in its fine details, and then individuals he calls the Field Oak and the Stag-Headed Oak. He meets with Stephen Taylor to discuss his Oak, a collection of dozens of paintings of the same tree.

“A few more leaves have turned to paler autumn shades like the grey hairs on a father not seen for months.” The Oak Papers is meticulous and dense with detailed observations not only of oaks–the seasonal variations in their leaves, buds and acorns–but of the lives they support: heron, treecreeper, wren, goldcrest, buzzard, stiletto fly, wood butterfly, mosses, lichen, hare, gall wasp. The bulk of these papers sees Canton sitting and watching, although he also recounts visits with people who know oaks well: artists and craftspeople who work with wood, spiritual thinkers, a psychologist who specializes in nature therapies. He lovingly concludes that “there are many paths to seeking the truths about oaks,” that “we all become better beings when we step back into the woods.”

Canton meditates on oaks while sitting in oaks, seeking greater understanding or to become the oak. He does not reach a conclusion by the end of these pages, but he gets closer.


This review originally ran in the February 5, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 details.
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