…….14 years after it became a phenomenon in South Korea, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang is now getting a lot of attention in the UK. In the last 9 months or so it’s been pretty visible in our bookshops. I walked past it every time though, thinking “not for me”.
Then I read a review of it from Claire at Word for Word and it changed my mind (Claire’s blog often makes me change my mind!!!), and I’m glad I did. For the story of Sprout, the battery hen with big dreams and an even bigger spirit is one of those books that just makes you feel good as you read it.
Sprout’s life is a monotonous conveyor-belt like existence of sitting in the chicken coop, producing eggs which are whisked away from her and waiting out the days till she can no longer produce eggs and will be culled. But caged as she is, Sprout also sees the world beyond the fence and she is drawn to it and inspired by it. She names herself Sprout because she’s fascinated by the way the seeds on the acacia tree she can see fall, settle into the ground and then in the following spring, sprout new foliage. Around her is a seeming acceptance of this turgid, inevitable, fate for the hens, but Sprout has other ideas. She’s desperate to hold onto and hatch one of those eggs she produces and so before it’s too late. To hatch an egg, she hatches a plan! To escape, roam free like other farm animals she sees, and become a mother.
To have any chance of fulfilling her dreams Sprout has to first find a way out of the coop. She can’t do that without being ready to take a risk and so right from the start of this book there is a clever moral message for our lives. From that point Sprout has to take more risks and be dogged and determined to pursue her dreams.
On one level you could interpret The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly as a children’s book. I think younger children might certainly enjoy it being read to them but it’s really aimed at adults. In the various quotes on the cover and initial pages of my edition, there are comparisons drawn with EB White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and Richard Bach’s ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull.’ Personally, although I see the connection in both allegorical themes and the setting between it and Charlotte’s Web, I thought this book was much more like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. They share that sense of ambition, the will to live, and that feeling of facing whatever fate or destiny might have in store for us.
I took from the book a strong feel of three sorts of difficulties that Sprout, and therefore all of us, face in our lives – those that are physical and real, those that come from others and those that lie within us. There are strong themes of family, love, prejudice, facing fears and making sacrifices throughout the book. At its core though is its message about what it takes to live life in a way that’s true to ones self rather than sheltering behind the safety of the herd.
At every turn the book has a simple, natural style. It’s written with a light, almost conversational feel, and the translation here works exceptionally well. For all that it is easy to read on one level, it’s also powerful enough to make you engage with Sprout and care about what happens to her. And of course, as any good allegorical story should, it makes you reflect on yourself, the lives of those around you and what it means to live life.
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a really good, well told modern fable about a small hen with big ideas, big plans and the biggest of hearts to match. As one of Sprout’s flying ambition contemporaries Orville Wright once said, “If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance”. Sprout would definitely agree!