Hawk Flies Above:
Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills

by Lisa Dale Norton

Beacon Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8070-7273-8.
Reviewed by Edith O'Nuallain
Posted on 03/19/2009
Review of the Month, April 2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

In her book Hawk Flies Above author Lisa Dale Norton combines memoir and nature writing to evoke stories and images from her childhood. She recalls long, lazy summer days spent with her family at their cabin beside Lake Ericson in the midst of the Nebraskan Sandhills.

But the magic ended the day her mother left home, leaving behind a family broken, shocked, and vulnerable. Lisa's sense of separateness and loss haunted her for years as she moved from place to place. It was in one of these half-way towns which functioned for her as temporary destinations throughout this restless period that she finally met her nemesis, coming face to face with death, on the day she was attacked and raped. Somehow, years after this horrifying ordeal, she found herself back in the family cabin in the heart of the landscape she loved. During the long spring, summer and fall sojourn here she began finally to piece together her memories and her life. In the end, it was this land that she cherished, and the multitude of her memories bound up within it, that led to her healing. Quite simply, the deep, life-long love she harboured for her childhood retreat, the landscape of her soul, ultimately gave her a reason for going on. She writes, "you can have my innocence; you can have my trust; but you cannot have the things I love." (pg. 184)

While this book is itself the memoir of a troubled young woman, it is also a primer of sorts in writing memoirs. Scattered throughout the tales of her childhood, the author regularly pauses to reflect upon the meanings of her memories. Thus she considers treasured memories as ways of "reconnecting with something lost, something sacred." In telling her story, she discovers that "Story nurtures. I tell a story and I feel more whole." (pg. 35) She also notes that in telling our stories we not only remember and thereby honor our memories, but we then have the opportunity to let these memories go, allowing them to become the means of transforming our present and future lives, so that they become "part of the path that leads to the genesis of a new magical world, one built from the luminescent pieces of the life I lead now." (pg. 38) This appears to be an earlier version of what would later become Norton's concept of "Shimmering Images" the title of her later book about writing memoirs.

Like many of us, Norton found it difficult to actually begin writing. But eventually the day arrived when she sat down to begin her story. "I cannot recall what those first words were, so many times rewritten since then, but that I had begun, finally, the story I had said I would write, even though I did not know what I was trying to say, or how to say it, and the relief was immense. Once over the edge and into the work, I could not stop." (pg. 140) As she continued to write she realised that her identity was inextricably intertwined with her memories of the Nebraskan prairie sandhills. "This place is lined with my stories...any tale I can tell is woven with knowledge I carry from a childhood spent exploring sandy prairie." (pg. 158) Ultimately, this memoir recounts a tale in which Norton is transformed.

One of the most striking features of the book's structure is that each chapter is punctuated by an evocative and lyrical piece entitled "Notebook" which focuses on a plant or bird indigenous to the Ericson Sandhills, and meaningful to her personally. In the end she was not only healed by the land but she also learned a valuable lesson about how to live a life. In the end, she discovers that compassion and love for ourselves, for others and for the land we inhabit overcome separateness and link us together in an intricate web of connections.


Lisa Dale Norton teaches creative writing for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. She is the author of two books, her memoir Hawk Flies Above and a new guide to writing memoir, Shimmering Images. Lisa offers workshops and speaks conferences around the country. She lives in Santa Fe and is the founder of the Santa Fe Writing Institute. Visit her web site.

(See another review of this book, here)

Check out our interview with the author of Hawk Flies Above.

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