January 2014

Rebecca Silber

fiction

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, translated by Chi-Young Kim

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang was first published in South Korea in 2000 to tremendous sales. Like most fables, this is a book that could probably be enjoyed by children -- after all, it has a lovable hen as its main character, along with a motley cast of barnyard animals in supporting roles. However, the underlying themes are so vast, the morals so mature, that this book is more suited for an adult audience.

Hwang tells the story of Sprout, a lovable hen destined to live out her life fenced in a chicken coop on a farm. She lays eggs and the farmer arrives each day to collect them; it is an unfulfilled life of monotony. Sprout spends her lonely days looking out through the chicken wire and gazing at the barnyard hens walking around the farm with their chicks in tow. Sprout yearns for babies of her own -- her initial nagging wish is "to hatch an egg and watch the birth of a chick." Watching her eggs disappear with the farmer each day is heartbreaking for Sprout, and she stops eating, grows weak, lays soft eggs, and is eventually selected to be culled. Miraculously, Sprout escapes from the mass grave of poultry and ends up loose on the farm, a place that she always wanted to be. Yet, she finds herself constantly struggling to survive. She spends her days and nights hiding from a hungry weasel and she also has multiple confrontations with some cruel farm animals. This is not a relaxing life for a sweet hen who just wants to be a mother, and it makes for a pretty stressful and disturbing read.

Eventually Sprout, in her wanderings, happens upon an unhatched, abandoned egg -- her maternal instincts take over and she decides to incubate it. She sits on the egg and is kept company by her mallard duck friend, another outsider, aptly named Straggler. What Sprout doesn't immediately realize is that it is Straggler's friendship that has enabled her to achieve her dream of motherhood. When the egg hatches, Sprout is not aware that it is a duckling that hatched, and not a chick. The story continues with both Sprout and her duckling, Greentop, navigating life together and encountering plenty of obstacles. The obstacles aren't much different than the ones Sprout encountered earlier, except that she is now deeply satisfied and happy with motherhood. Her satiated mental state enables her to conquer hindrances better than she was able to before and eventually allows her to satisfy her ultimate dream.

This fable has been compared to Animal Farm and Charlotte's Web, but that seems like too facile a comparison. So many animal stories enjoyed by children have adult themes, but because The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is being marketed (at least in the U.S.) as a book for adults, it can -- and should -- transcend this analogy. When I was reading Hwang's book, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivy immediately came to mind. Ivy's novel, which has a fantasy and fable-like quality, tells the story of a middle-aged human couple, Mabel and Jack. They recently relocated to Alaska and their dream is also to have a child. Due to medical problems, that isn't possible, and they suffer psychologically because of their unattainable desire. Meanwhile life throws every hardship imaginable their way -- illness, lack of food, lack of camaraderie, harsh weather, among others. Like Sprout, Mabel happens upon a child and her feelings of despair are immediately turned around. As with The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, Snow Child is an imaginative and thoughtful book.

Coincidentally, the cover art on the two books is also quite similar -- both show stark tree scenes, beautifully executed. Aside from the cover art, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is peppered with delightful black and white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. These were specially commissioned and done by a Japanese artist named Nomoco who currently lives in London. The simple ink drawings are not juvenile and expertly capture the happenings of the book without detracting from the words.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a critique of society. Symbolically, through the actions of animals, it touches on racism, adoption, the power of friendship, feeling trapped in an unhappy life, selfishness, bullying, and more. Through all of these adversities, Sprout perseveres and becomes a likeable and strong heroine -- yet, she is a hen. While this is a book that could be read to, and enjoyed by a child, the majority of these themes would be lost on the younger crowd. It would be disappointing for adults to overlook The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly and pass it off solely as a children's book. It is the readers with a portfolio of life experience who have the most to gain from reading Hwang's simple yet incredibly profound tale.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, translated by Chi-Young Kim
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0143123200
144 pages