For the first time ever, Sprout found herself missing the coop. At least she was able to lay eggs there. Life wouldn’t be so lonely and tedious if she had just behaved like every other hen.
Sometimes the simplest stories are the most moving. Stripped down to their barest components, they grapple with huge ideas which are disorienting in their magnitude and distill them down into pure, graspable moments. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a fable—a simple story which the youngest child could read and understand. The themes it develops are tremendously complex: the crushing oppression of the status quo and those who defend it; the ease of making a stand as an individual versus the enormous difficulty of sticking to your guns; the ethics of cages versus free-range farming; the stigma against sterility and the narrow definition of motherhood; the prejudices surrounding adoption and how non-traditional families are always viewed as somehow lesser, false, inauthentic replicas of biological reproduction.
Sun-Mi Hwang tells the simple story of Sprout, an egg-laying hen imprisoned in a chicken coop who longs to get out into the barnyard and get to keep and hatch one of the eggs that are continually stolen from her. Sprout goes on a hunger strike, has a miscarriage, and is removed from the assembly line as a disruptive worker whose malaise is a threat, since the owners fear it might spread to the other hens. Of course, Hwang does not use words like this, but it’s easy to interpret Marxist undertones in Sprout’s removal from the coop. Much of my satisfaction from reading this story was using my fancy literary interpretation skills to see all the complex social mechanics underlying seemingly mundane barnyard activity. (Can you tell that I miss writing essays? Graduate school cannot come soon enough…)
Sprout’s story continues as she mourns the sterility brought on by the conditions of her imprisonment, then grows into a fierce protective resourceful mother for the orphaned egg she finds. The hen’s story ends in an unexpected place—I was anticipating a more magical, fabulous turn—but it left me satisfied and appreciative of having read this book. It moved my emotions with very few words, with simple yet credible characters.
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is apparently one of the best-selling Korean books of all time, and its film adaptation is the highest-grossing animated film in Korea. In this case I think success is fully deserved, and it makes me happy to think that millions of children have read and absorbed Hwang’s story about social ostracism and compassion.