Under the Henfluence: A Book Review

Day 333 of 365

I am jealous of two things in my life–barns and I am jealous of this magnificent book. I wish I was not, but this is the book of my dreams. In her new book, Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them, Tove Danovich weaves her experiences with chickens with the latest research as well as the history these beautiful birds to create a book that compels readers to think about chickens with a more open mind. She asks readers to consider a world where chickens are treated with the respect they deserve.

In her introductory chapter, Danovich writes, “This book is about chickens, yes, but it is also about how they can change your life if you let them” (p. 7).

And Danovich shows the readers how she is changed by her chickens, along with what she learns about their intelligence and their individual personalities. Danovich’s stories and experiences will resonate with so many of us. She describes that first day meeting her baby chicks, of picking them up at the post office early in the morning and meeting the fluffy babies. This early chapter really spoke to me. I remember that morning of picking up my baby chicks at the post office and being in awe. I used to keep a blog called Pajamas, Books, and Chickens. In my first post, I wrote about meeting my chickens for the first time:

I stood at the back door of the post office and knocked. When a woman came to the door, I told her I was there for a box of baby chicks. She asked my name and then disappeared behind the post office door. She reappeared a few minutes later with a box much smaller than I had anticipated, and that box was cheeping loudly. I loved those chicks before I could even see them. I loved how they sounded. As I carried the girls to the car, I spoke through the holes in the box. “Hi, babies, I am your mama, and everything is going to be alright.”

There are some major milestones in my life, and, as wild as it sounds, getting our chicks was a milestone for me. In the days after we brought the girls home, I gave notice at my job in academic administration and set out to change my life.

Danovich tells a similar story–one so many of us will identify with, only her writing is vivid and gorgeous.

She writes: When I got to the front and told the woman what I was there for, her face lit up with a smile. “They’re just over on my desk. I’ll go get them for you.”

She walked into the back. I heard her coming toward me a few seconds before I saw her. “Peep! Peep! Peep! Peep!” the chicks yelled furiously from their cardboard box…For three small birds, they sure could make a lot of noise (p. 16).

Danovich has a beautiful writing style, and I love the way she describes both the highs and lows of keeping chickens. She describes the curiosity and learning that happens when you keep chickens for the first time–the kind that changes your heart and mind and brings you such joy. She also describes the heartbreak that happens when you fall in love with these magnificent creatures because, inevitably, there will be loss.

In the book, she describes her first loss where she felt responsible. Her dog killed one of her hens, Betty, and Danovich struggled to forgive herself. I know this pain well. We lost a dear hen to a hawk attack, but I was home and heard the scream. I didn’t run out to her immediately because I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. We lost Lucy II because I didn’t run to her immediately, and the guilt was powerful. I also really struggled because friends and family couldn’t understand my grief. So many times, I heard people say, “It’s just a chicken.”

Danovich writes of her own first heartbreak and of the grief the other hens felt about the loss of their friend and member of their little flock of three: When I stopped crying long enough to come outside to check on Lyle’s progress [he was digging a grave for Betty], I heard Peggy and Joan calling from the coop…Unless I was right next to the birds, I rarely heard them make a noise at all. Now their calls rang out from the coop to the front door, two hundred feet away. I took a moment to listen, as I had done so often when they were chicks. That’s when the tears came again.

“It’s the lost chick call,” I said as I got closer to Lyle. “The sound. It’s the same one they made as chicks when they were separated from the flock.” (p. 47).

Under the Henfluence resonated with me over and over again. Danovich even named her first chickens after characters in Mad Men. I also have hens named after Mad Men–Joan, a Rhode Island Red; Betty, the most perfectly beautiful hen I have ever seen; and Peggy, who is no longer with us. If you follow this blog and love my chicken stories, I promise you are going to love this new book.

Danovich not only tells the story of her own experiences with chickens, but she also tells the story of chickens in general–of their relationships with humans throughout history and what we know now thanks to new research about chicken intelligence and individuality.

I had the good fortune of speaking with Tove Danovich about her book. It’s a book she has been working on for years and a book that is missing from the “canon” of chicken books. So many chicken books approach chickens as commodity; this book approaches chickens with reverence. Sy Montgomery has touched on this topic in her chapter on chickens in her book, Birdology, but to my knowledge (and I have surely read 100 chicken books), Tove Danovich’s book is the first of its kind. I hope to ride her coattails and publish my own book on chickens, different but with the same message about the value of these animals, which is so much more than most people think.

Tove Danovich is paving the way to a different conversation. As a chicken person, I am thankful to her for writing this and to her publisher for publishing a book that is so needed. It is also a book that I think our culture is ready for. As more and more Americans get backyard chickens, they are learning the truth about these birds, one that been obscured by our food industry for reasons of profit.

Near the end of the book, Danovich tells the story of getting some ex-battery hens and what it is like rescuing hens from such a terrible life. She describes their lack of feathers, their uncertainty, and Danovich tells the truth about the rehabilitation of these animals. It is a truth more people need to know. Where we get our food matters. How animals are treated matters. It’s that simple, and it is my goal to follow in Danovich’s footsteps and rescue battery hens one day.

One of the last things Danovich told me in our interview really touched me. She said, “I don’t think there is any animal, big or small, that we have been surprised by how little they know. It’s always quite the opposite. If you get to know chickens, you will be surprised by how smart they are.”

And that’s the truth.

Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them is a groundbreaking book and a powerful read. It is available right now in hardcover from Agate publishing. Buy a copy for yourself and for every chicken lady you know. It will be treasured.

And, to celebrate this new book, I’m doing a Farmer-ish giveaway. All you have to do is share this post and leave a comment that you shared it, and you will be entered to win a brand new, hardcover copy of this fantastic book.The deadline to enter is April 16 at midnight, and you must live in the U.S. Don’t forget to leave a comment to let me know you shared this post!

4 thoughts on “Under the Henfluence: A Book Review

  1. I loved your post about baby chicks and what you wrote about Under the Henfluence by Tove Danovich. You’ve opened my eyes and mind to their beauty and I can’t wait to read this new book. Thanks for sharing, and I’ve shared it with my friend, Jessica, who supplies us with eggs from her “ladies”.

    Liked by 1 person

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