Book Review: Hwang Sunmi — The Hen who Dreamed she could Fly

The Hen who Dreamed she could FlyHwang Sun-mi: The Hen who dreamed she could fly
Translated by Kim Chi-young; illustrations by Nomoco
Oneworld Publications, 2014, 124pp
First published as 마당을 나온 암탉, 2000
SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

A brief fable that can delight children and adults alike, the story touches on themes of motherly love, discrimination, otherness, and belonging, while also touching on and accepting the harsh realities of life — and death.

As the novel starts, we wonder if we are going to be force-fed a heavy political allegory. Sprout, the free-thinking but downtrodden worker imprisoned in her coop, forced to give up the produce of her labours to an exploitative capitalist farmer. All she wants is to escape into the barnyard, walk beside the rooster under the shade of the acacia tree after whose green sprouts in the springtime she has named herself, to hatch an egg, raise a chick, and live a life of freedom.

What she doesn’t know is that the hens in the barnyard are organically raised Korean native chickens who think themselves superior to the factory birds in the barn. And rather like an escapee from North Korea arriving in the South, when Sprout escapes into freedom she finds it is not the idyll she imagined. There is the constant threat of being eaten by the weasel; and integration into her new world is not easy: it is difficult to become accepted in the entrenched hierarchy, to find her place in the pecking order. She finds herself cast out.

As Sprout forges a life for herself in the wild, she is forced back on her own resourcefulness, and finally achieves her dream, though not in the way she expected. Staying one step ahead of the weasel, she manages to raise her child and experience the struggles, joys and heartbreak of parenthood.

Totally charming.

The book was adapted as an animated film entitled Leafie, A Hen into the Wild (마당을 나온 암탉, dir Oh Sung-yoon, 2011), which broke box-office records for an animation. LKL’s review can be found here. Hwang Sun-mi is one of the 10 featured authors in London Book Fair 2014.

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