by Randy Graham
It has occurred to me that we backyard chicken folks are a cult. Before we joined the cult by getting chickens, we were like most regular folks and pretty much thought of chickens as “just chickens.” Most of us got into the chicken thing with thoughts of eggs and self-sufficiency and being responsible and knowledgeable about the food we eat. Then, each of us, one by one, got these birds. And each of us, one by one, had our epiphanies. We switched our rationale for having chickens. Now we have chickens to have chickens.
Like all cult members, we subscribe to certain arcane truths unknown by the public at large. We know that chickens are self-aware. They can be happy or sad. They recognize and remember other individuals, both people and chickens. They can communicate with each other. They are beautiful and complicated and amazing. “Just chickens” is an oxymoron.
We name our chickens. The chickens don’t care about our labels because they know who they are. But naming them helps us remember that each chicken is unique and that “just chickens” is a falsehood.
The four chickens in Jackie Polzin’s first novel, “Brood” have names. Gam Gam, Miss Hennepin County, Darkness, and Gloria live in a coop, a converted garden shed, in a Minneapolis backyard. The novel’s narrator, the hens’ owner, provides an abundance of information about the lives of these four hens in each short chapter, and also tells us of her own life. But surprisingly, she never mentions her own name. Maybe she feels the same way about labels as chickens do. But it’s a little unsettling for her to remain anonymous when we learn so many intimate details about her life. It’s a bit like having her as a seatmate on a plane—you converse, the flight ends, she leaves, you never see her again, and yet you remember her story.
“Brood” is not an action-packed novel. The narrator describes incidents after they’ve occurred – after she’s had a chance to reflect on what has transpired and how it fits into the broader scope of her life. In the year that the narrator describes, there are no car chases, shoot-outs, or even violent arguments. She simply lives her life like most of us do. Like all of us, she has good days and bad days. Like all of us she realizes some of her hopes and aspirations and not others. Then, like all of us, she moves on to the next year.
The missing dramatic action is balanced by the phenomenal storytelling. Polzin’s writing is beautiful, descriptive, and poetic. Brown eggs, for example, can be “fair like milk tea” or “dark and a bit orange” or “cocoa brown” or “the color of a peach crayon.”
In the beginning chapters, the narrator describes a life that is comfortable, predictable and pleasant. She has a warm relationship with her eccentric mom who lives in the countryside east of the Twin Cities with goats, a flock of pigeons, and a three-legged cat. She has a best friend, Helen, a real estate agent. She finds great satisfaction in her job, cleaning the houses that Helen is showing. She speaks eloquently of a job that many would find mundane. “In a clean house, flat surfaces continue uninterrupted. The eye does not stop to investigate a crumb or a clod of dirt…The eye lands on an object of its own choosing rather than the errant scrap or the heaped towel.”
Her husband is her soulmate. Percy is an economist, is consumed with his work, but is helpful, sensitive, loving, and wants what she wants—chickens…children…
And there are those four sweet hens living in the converted garden shed. She describes her trip to “a farm south of Burnsville” with Percy to acquire them. Both husband and wife are innocent of any real knowledge of chickens or their care. They’ve decided that they want at least one hen with “fun-colored eggs.” But the farm woman seems brusque and intimidating, so they choose their hens randomly.
“’That one seems healthy,’ I said pointing to the chicken we named Gam Gam. I knew nothing of a chicken’s health or the signs…” Percy finally asks how to tell the color of a chicken’s eggs. “Look at the ears,” the woman tells him. And in the car on the drive home, they admit to each other that they didn’t know that chickens had ears.
As the story progresses, we gradually become aware of the undercurrents of the narrator’s predictable and pleasant life. Her neighborhood is deteriorating and is filled with boarded-up buildings. She watches drug deals transpire on the street from her front window. The nearby tracks used to host a few trains on a predictable schedule. Now trains heavy with North Dakota crude pass by at all hours on their way to the refineries. When they pass, they shake the ground, the foundation, and the entire house. Cracks appear and grow in the ceiling. A rift opens in the basement floor and becomes home to tiny crawling ants and large spiders. The huge backyard sugar maple that dominates the entire neighborhood is dying. “The tree has given up. There is no other explanation for the constant litter of its limbs on the ground…When the winter ends…the tree will be one season closer to firewood.”
And then, sad icing on a cake of misfortune, a tornado plows through the neighborhood.
Overshadowing these unfortunate realities, a prestigious California university is considering Percy for a position. If they choose him and he accepts, it will mean leaving their crumbling neighborhood and home. But it will also mean divesting themselves of the hens.
Never once, in the entire novel, does the narrator refer to herself as “a chicken mom.” Never once does she refer to the hens as her “feathered babies.” But these terms are used freely and frequently within our cult. And while she never uses these words, we, her fellow cultists, understand how she feels about her birds. And when, eventually, the hens are gone and the coop is empty, clean, and smelling of bleach, we feel her ache.
And while she discusses it almost casually, we feel her ache when she describes her miscarriage, and the unlikelihood that she will ever be able to have children.
The word “brood” has a variety of meanings. It can refer to offspring, as in “a brood of chicks” or “a brood of children.” It also describes the action of a mother hen as she sits on her eggs for three weeks and waits for them to hatch.
Then there is that occasional hen that obsessively sits in her empty nest even though her eggs have been taken from her daily. Day after day she sits on nothing, staring blankly, while waiting for her nonexistent eggs to hatch. It is from hens like these that we have derived another meaning for the word. To brood is to contemplate obsessively about unhappy things.
As I read this novel, I gradually became aware of how each of these definitions apply to the story and how aptly the book is titled. By the end of the book, I was astonished at how attached I’d become to the narrator. If she were a stranger telling me this story on a plane, by the end of the flight I would feel so invested in her life that I’d want to reach out and offer words of support. I’d like to tell her how much hope I had that her life will be okay. I’d like to know what happens next. And I’d like to know her name.