“She fantasized about sitting in a nest, on an egg, about venturing into the fields with the rooster, and about following the ducks around. She sighed. It was pointless to dream. It would never happen to her.”
– from The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, by Sun-mi Hwang, translated by Chi-Young Kim
I was excited about this book- it had a beautiful cover and illustrations (by Nomoco), and was advertised as a Korean fable, a genre-name that brought to mind some lovely books like The Little Prince and The Alchemist. Review snippets in the front compared it to Charlotte’s Web. I was disappointed. It’s the story of a laying hen in captivity who longs for simple things- sunlight and a chick to raise. When she escapes from her cage, Sprout realizes freedom is more complicated to achieve and harder to maintain than she had first thought, and motherhood brings its own challenges.
The story’s not bad, but the style was hard for me to cope with. Proponents might call it “spare prose,” but to me it felt overly simplified, and repeated ideas as if I might not have understood them the first time they were said. A lot of the book is taken up by sentences like, “Sprout was hungry,” or “Sprout was astonished.” I got a little bored with Sprout and thought she seemed a dense at times, and I judged her for putting the whole meaning of her life on her chick and then feeling deserted and lifeless when he grew up. I think that’s pretty normal, but it’s not healthy for parents or children, and it left a bad taste in my mouth to see it portrayed as heroism.
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly lacks the universal wisdom of a story like The Little Prince, and makes no attempt at direct observations about society at large, but it also lacks the character strength and relationship bonds to be good as just a story, like Charlotte’s Web. Despite a heavy dose of sadness, oppression, and struggle, it still comes across as a sentimental tale, something you might read in Reader’s Digest but with chickens and ducks instead of people- and maybe I should have guessed that from the title.