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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

California Woman Soars with Falcon

Lift: A Memoir, by Rebecca K. O’Connor
I scoop the falcon up quickly and when he’s upright on my glove he glares at me directly. I look away, pretending I’m not a predator....

Eyes still downcast, I slowly move my right hand so that I can tap the food tucked in the glove below the falcon gently with my fingers. The movement gets his attention and he bows his head cautiously several times, not so sure he wants to expose the back of his head to me. I’m holding my breath, still only watching from the corner of my eyes. Then at last with one more angry glare he settles in to eat a cautious meal.

The memoir genre is somehow irresistible to most of us. Autobiography pretends to expose an entire life, even while we always know that much has been left out (and often wish more had been). Memoir is more modest. Within its limited range, however, the best of the genre gives readers the focus and intensity of a short story, the intimacy of a friend’s letter, and an immediacy and vividness of detail that make it read like good travel narrative. We are there, and from there we gain a whole new perspective on life. Such is Lift: A Memoir, by Rebecca K. O’Connor.

Have you ever known a falconer? I had never before encountered this world of mysterious ritual, of medieval equipment and language--short, sharp, one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words like bate and stoop. A dedicated bird trainer, O’Connor takes us into the world of falconry as well as into her own personal sphere. Lift is the story of her first peregrine, how she acquires and trains the bird to fly free, to kill its own prey and to return to her gloved fist. What O’Connor herself learns in the course of training her avian partner and how this new knowledge clarifies episodes in her past is the other part of the book. She writes at the end of her prologue, “I still wonder if I’m hunter or prey, I still wonder what it means to be partner to a peregrine.” As I see it, the first part of that sentences voices a woman’s question, the second the question of a falconer.

Any close, disciplined human-animal relationship provides opportunity for personal growth. For me, years ago, a winter of dressage classes (which I did not follow beyond that one season, for a variety of reasons) gave me lessons in calmness, confidence and consistency, qualities essential to working with any animals. A falconer must also have great courage, and O’Connor exhibits what I can’t help thinking of as Aristotelian courage (though she would probably disavow the accolade), choosing her risks and arguments and taking on the important challenges, regardless of fear, both in her work with the peregrine and in her relationships with important human beings in her life. Perhaps her courage derives from faith:
Falconry is a religion, a way of thinking, a means of experiencing life. Thus falconers are compassionate, clear-eyed straight shooters. We’ve touched nature’s senseless violence, clung to her stray miracles, and this alters our beliefs. It is a religion for which we are often persecuted.

Reading this book, the impression I get is that a falconer’s greatest fear is failing the falcon:
Anakin arrives ready for another chance. He is at seven hundred feet, remounted and waiting for us to flush something else, despite the absence of waterfowl. Yet he doesn’t hesitate when I pull the lure from my vest; again he drops at full speed. My heart pounds because I don’t think I’ll manage this timing. The falcon is coming too fast, but I keep swinging the lure.

Is falconry a “blood sport”? It is certainly bloody, and O’Connor gets that truth out on the table on the first page of her book, but she is not a bullfighter, and, unlike hunting with a dog to flush birds for the hunter to shoot, in falconry it is the human who flushes birds or game for the hawk to kill. These distinctions will not silence opposition. There will be—and this is nothing new to those in the sport, but I’m thinking of controversy an author on a book tour will have to face—there will be objections, also, to the whole idea of owning a raptor, though O’Connor’s bird was bred, not trapped, and she gives the historical reasons for this. To become a falconer, it would seem, is to ask for criticism.

Immediately before reading this book, I had read two other memoirs (see “Books Read 2009” list in right-hand column, if interested), both of whose authors were driven by a hunger for understanding. Is this a feature common to memoir? The search for understanding is very different from self-obsession. Anyway, for all its unique content (has there ever been another memoir by a woman falconer?), Lift pursues this same basic human theme, as the author flashes back to scenes in her childhood and growing-up years that illuminate—and are illuminated by—the challenges of training her peregrine. O’Connor was abandoned as a four-year-old by her mother, but the two women are now closer than many mothers and daughters, and perhaps there is something healing for O’Connor in the demanding daily responsibilities of falconry.

I have chosen brief excerpts from this book to give a flavor of the author’s voice, her honesty, and her themes and have intentionally left untouched the details and course of her relationships with the man in her life and with her mother, as well as various crises that arise in the course of training her bird, because these are the story, and I don’t want to give any of it away. You’ve never read a book like this before, and you will never forget it after you’ve read it.

The anticipated publication date for Lift is November. Put it on your list now. When it is available, I will have it at Dog Ears Books.


Gerry said...

And another one for The List. How will I ever find time to read them all?

P. J. Grath said...

One way is "one at a time." Another way is to skip from one to another, reading three or four books "at once" (though not really, of course). Then there is the matter of priority. I sometimes get on kicks, as my list shows, with several of the same kind of book in a row, and then switch gears dramatically. O'Connor's was the third memoir in a row I read, but its outdoor setting and unique subject matter made it a standout. I hope this book takes off and has a big success.