Rating: 4 stars
Weezelle of Words and Leaves posted about her holiday reading recently. One of the books she consumed was The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. I’ve picked this book up many times over the last couple of years, drawn by its elegant cover design. I’ve also always put it back down again, partly because it’s the cover that has drawn me more than what’s on the pages behind the cover, and partly because I’ve been trying to rein myself in on the book buying front.
On my most recent visit to the library, Hwang Sun-Mi’s best seller caught my eye. It’s such a slim book, I thought it would make a nice break from all the US literature I’ve been reading recently. So I brought it home.
The hen of the title is called Sprout. It’s a name she has given herself, inspired by the annual promise of new life displayed by a nearby acacia tree. Sprout is a hen reared to lay eggs for human consumption. She doesn’t understand that. From the inside of the hen coop, through the chicken wire, across the border that separates the captive from the free, Sprout watches the rooster and the free hen enjoying the run of the yard. The free hen does what Sprout can only dream of – she keeps her eggs and hatches them into chicks.
This is a sweet story that can be taken allegorically to mean any number of things. There’s the love of a mother for her child, whether or not she is its biological mother. There’s the hoping for something better than what you’ve got, and a warning that the grass isn’t always greener. There’s the suspicion that some feel for immigrants and the fear that if you let a few in to your neat little society, more will follow and outnumber those who were there first. There’s the sense of individuals being forced to conform and follow rules in order to keep those in power satisfied. There’s the injustice of the weak being discarded as useless, and the healthy being treated better because they are productive. And there’s the resilience of an individual who has hope that life might change for the better but who has to dig deep to maintain that hope when the world turns out to be crueller than it at first seemed.
I liked Sprout. She is naïve but determined to learn and to move her life forward. I particularly liked her attitude as revealed in an exchange with the farm dog.
“Why can’t I live in the yard? I’m a hen, too, just like she is.”
“Ha! Silly chicken. What makes you think that? Yes, you’re both hens, but you’re different. How do you not know that? Just like I’m a gatekeeper and the rooster announces the morning, you’re supposed to lay eggs in a cage. Not in the yard! Those are the rules.”
“What if I don’t like the rules? What happens then?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” The dog snorted. He turned around and went into his house, shaking his head. He wouldn’t help her.
She’s innocent of the rules. A rebel without realising it. A natural non-conformist. She’s an individual who sees a different path and follows it, regardless of what others think, regardless of how scary it might feel. She’d love to be part of a community, but not at the cost of changing who she is just to fit in.
Sprout finds her own way to be a mother, raising an orphaned duckling and preparing him for the life he needs to lead. She gets her wish and she doesn’t waste it.