When my parents first brought chickens onto their farm, I stood my distance. Something about their dinosaur feet and the way they blinked their beady eyes caused the aversion for me that people have to nails on a chalkboard. My parents’ layers were beloved to the rest of my family. My baby brothers would collect their eggs, carry them around, and feed them discarded corncobs as treats in the summer. While I liked the fresh eggs, I never found an appreciation for them until reading “Barn 8” by Deb Olin Unferth.
This book is a hybrid text. It’s a coming-of-age tale before it becomes a fairytale, then a radical manifesto turned love story. It’s an accumulation of styles to weave the entirety of the story. It’s a mysterious interview, a séance to alternative timelines, and the story of Bwwaauk, a hen on the lam.
When Janey runs away from her Brooklyn home to meet her estranged father in Iowa, she stays out of spite, at first, before an accident back home leaves her stranded in the landlocked agriculture-industrial complex. Janey fantasizes about an alternate timeline where she stayed in Brooklyn with her loving mother in a world filled with opportunities. The alternate timelines orbit each other with precision to raise the question, “What makes a full life?”
When Janey and her surrogate mother, Cleveland, rescue chickens from code-violating habitations, she thinks she finally has a one-up on the exciting life she envisions for alternate-Janey. With the help of Annabelle, former egg heiress turned sundress-wearing leader of an anarcho-punk animal rights group, the pair devise a plan to free one million chickens.
Paragraphs move from interviews, interrogations, perspectives from a chicken, and chapters set in parenthesis, but the power of the prose lies within the omniscient narrator. The storyteller has a secondary voice that consistently appears in parenthesis, acting as a guardian angel, either letting the reader in on the joke, or taking over the main narration like a moderator navigating a wayward panel. The Vonnegut and Sontag influences are abundant and justified.
Despite the divine intervention, Unferth is careful to use the characters to tell the story. I grew weary reading work about farms or small-town life in Iowa, afraid the writer will reduce my homeland to a handful of blue-collar stereotypes. But Unferth is deft at steering the narrative toward a criticism of industrial agriculture, rather than small, family-owned farms, as well as giving characters whole identities. The criticism of the agricultural industrial complex is self-aware, even toward the protestors, when Unferth states, “These days animal activism was less revolution, more capitalism with a conscience.”
“Barn 8” is heavily researched from the experience of USDA inspectors and of egg production facilities, down to the experience and brain functions of an average Leghorn chicken. If I’m still not personally a fan, after reading “Barn 8,” I have, at least, grown to appreciate chickens.
Deb Olin Unferth will be in conversation with author Erik Anderson at Volumes Bookcafe on May 11 at 6pm.
By Deb Olin Unferth
Graywolf Press, 296 pages
Joshua Bohnsack is the assistant managing editor for TriQuarterly and founding editor for Long Day Press. He is the author of the story collection “Shift Drink” and his work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, SAND, and others. He lives in Chicago where he works as a bookseller.