The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
By Sun-mi Hwang, translated by Chi-Young Kim
Penguin Books, New York | 2013 | 134 pages | $15.00
Reviewed by Sally Cobau
I Dare You To Read This Book Without Crying
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a delightful story written by South Korean author Sun-mi Hwang. The story is part fairy-tale, part pastoral, part allegory, and focuses on the ingenuity of a plucky hen named Sprout. In essence what happens is after Sprout makes a move to change her life, a series of adventures unfold—friendships are made and hearts broken, and Sprout acts in a way that is extremely brave.
But back to the beginning. Bred to produce eggs for a poor South Korean farmer, Sprout becomes depressed with the realization that her egg laying is for naught—she will never hatch a baby chick.
Faced with this epiphany, she realizes that she has a choice—to give up all hope and die or try to accomplish the one thing she wants in life—to have a baby.
Don’t let the simplicity of the story fool you. Sprout’s dilemma is existential. By focusing on a scraggly hen, Hwang asks serious questions such as What does it mean to have a good life? And is there a point to our perpetual striving? The answer seems to be yes and the book vibrates with the tenacity of that answer.
One of the strengths of the book is Hwang’s depiction of relationships and of loneliness. Sprout longs for companionship. However, her lot in life—a scraggly hen—makes her low in the pecking order of the farm. As in Charlotte’s Web, Hwang creates a complex ordering for the animals on the farm, from the dog whose main job is keeping strangers out of the barn (including Sprout) to the mallard who becomes Sprout’s friend.
Her uncertainty about her position in life is eloquently phrased by Hwang: “She didn’t know what to do. She turned to look at the path she’d taken. The yard suddenly seemed so far away. I don’t want to go back to the yard. It wasn’t because of the mallard that she had wanted to live in the yard, but now that he wasn’t there she didn’t feel like going back. She wanted to escape from the heat and go to sleep for a long time. Nobody likes me. She didn’t want to live under the acacia tree anymore; she looked longingly at the barn.”
Just as Hwang describes the way we long for friendship, she describes the overwhelming joy in having a baby. It seems sweetly funny to me that some of the best passages I’ve read about having a child were in this book about a hen who sits on a duck egg and becomes the adopted mother of a duck, but there you have it.
Sprout loves her baby. And when she has a baby her life feels complete. No wishy-washy, “I-thought-my-life-would-be-perfect-but-it’s-not” pouting for this mother. There is an unabashed thread that runs through this novel—being a mother (and therefore a father) is the most extraordinary and important thing we can do. Perhaps it is the only important thing we do in our lives. Hwang writes about the moment of birth:
“Oh, my goodness!” Sprout stood still, in a daze. She had known there was a baby inside the egg, but this was like a dream. Small eyes, small wings, small feet—everything was tiny. But they all moved, and every movement was tiny and adorable. “Baby, you’re here!” Sprout ran over and embraced him with outstretched wings. He was a real baby, all small and warm.”
But the “problem” of her son’s difference—he is a duck after all and will fly away—is also explored in The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. Sprout faces that cruel dilemma that all parents face—how to encourage a child’s differences, while protecting him or her.
Sprout loves Greentop beyond belief, yet she also wants to see him succeed with the ducks. She can’t teach him to fly because she’s a hen, but by golly she’ll get him the best flying teacher she can. I think, as parents, we’ve all been there, playing those duel roles of encourager and protector. Of course, when Greentop flies away for good, we feel a welling of sadness just like Sprout. If only he could stay… but isn’t it amazing that he’s going…
All this good stuff is even better because there is a menacing, evil weasel lurking around. The weasel represents death, but also cunning and grit and determination. The weasel is as determined to get Sprout for a meal as Sprout is determined to live a life worthy of living. Playing in the background through all of Sprout’s joy—her true friendship with the mallard and her all-encompassing love for her child—is the awful weasel, tracking her, trying to catch her, almost grasping her with his sharp teeth.
But Sprout is always too sly to be devoured by the weasel. During a bad winter the weasel even loses an eye, making him even scarier. The weasel is constantly stalking Sprout and her son and he comes so close several times to catching them.
Often Sprout has to stay up all night guarding Greentop when he is young (in the dark, the weasel is most formidable) and then she is exhausted during the day. This happens for years and this part of the book adds another layer or excitement to the story. I will not ruin it for you by saying what happens between Sprout and the weasel at the end of the story. That is for you to get to. But I will tell you this—it will be worth it.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that this book is beloved in South Korea and that there has been a movie made of the book. It seems to lend itself to animation. Also the story of the author is fascinating. Having grown up in a rural environment, she learned to read from the school library after she could no longer go to school. The story and the author are revered in South Korea. I hope that the tale becomes popular here. It’s a little bit darker than Disney (thank goodness), but has all the drama of a major kids’ flick. I’m crossing my fingers.