BY MATT ELLIS
Deb Olin Unferth
Guggenheim Fellow and three-time Pushcart Prize winner Deb Olin Unferth knows that humans are a mess. Somewhere between visions of the ideal world and taking action, even the best-intentioned among us has the capacity to blow it completely. That’s probably why the clear underdog in her ambitious satirical political drama Barn 8 is a chicken named Bwwaauk.
Like with all great hen heist epics, this one starts with a late-night bus ride from New York to Iowa. Fifteen-year-old Janey Flores flies her mother’s coop to meet a father she didn’t know existed and to punish them both for the paternal omission. “She was going to make this man know her, or at least pay for not knowing her.” Her temporary act of teenage angst becomes permanent when tragedy strikes, stranding her in the Midwest, mourning the life she should have had.
But the old Janey—the original, the best, the one who might have lived and gone on to greatness, or at least happiness, or at least somethingness, had she not made the one terrible error—was stronger than any of them. The rest of the Janeys were mere shadows fading in light.
Left with little hope of escaping her agrarian limbo, this once high achiever gives up and lets life’s currents sweep her along into adulthood. After self-destructing at yet another job, the wayward young woman takes a position as a layer hen consumer auditor under the meticulous Cleveland, the head of audits. The slacker in Janey is immediately at odds with her boss until she discovers two secrets—before running away from Iowa, Janey’s mom was Cleveland’s biggest hero, and the head of audits has been surreptitiously removing chickens from farms. Janey’s inner rebel flame sufficiently stoked once again, she joins Cleveland’s covert exploits.
She forbade them to call it ‘freeing,’ or worse, ‘liberating.’ Where could they take these birds where they’d be ‘free’? The chickens were so overbred, they no longer had a natural habitat. ‘You have to have a place to go where you can be free in order to be freed,’ Cleveland said. But Janey wasn’t so sure. These chickens, these animals with wings, who could fly short distances, these birds, as in the phrase free as a bird, were ineligible for freedom?
Working together in the dead of night, with absolutely no plan but plenty of insider knowledge, they raid farm after farm, taking more chickens each time and dumping them off with Dill, a frustrated, out of work, undercover, animal rights investigator who wishes they would just stop. Their aimless pursuit takes on new meaning when Janey has an epiphany. Her dead-end life could surpass the idyllic life she was supposed to have if only her actions were big enough.
She saw it. The Real Plan, a vision of it: the cages falling away, the hens flinging out of them, flicking off the steel like eggshells, birds shucking off their cages, jumping out of the wire as from nests. She saw the roof open up and stars filling the sky over the canopy of swaying cages and branches. She saw the hens, hundreds of thousands of them, with a power unheard of in a chicken, fly up out of the barn and into the night.
… ‘[L]et’s take them all,’ because the new Janey had arrived.
To accomplish the impossible, the duo and Dill enlist the help of the slightly unhinged recluse Annabelle—“Yes, she had a way about her. The sort of thing that gets people to join cults, start wars.” What follows is a raucous journey involving an army of activists, anarchists, and their closest friends to turn a million caged hens into free-range yard birds.
… [Y]ou couldn’t just call out a command and trust they’d follow. Unruly, petulant. He’d never been able to do much more than negotiate with them and if that didn’t work, curse at them, and if that didn’t work, threaten (never beg). On company property they were professionals, but the second they stepped off, they were Napoleons every one, absurd figures, the fuckers. … [Q]uitting, crying, breaking equipment, punching walls in a temper tantrum, fighting or falling in love with each other, disappearing, reappearing to yell one more taunt or piece of paranoid nonsense.
Unferth is no stranger to revolution. She literally wrote a book about it. In her self-deprecating memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, Unferth sharpened her wit against the turmoil of her naïve journey through three war-torn Central American countries in the late 1980s. She approaches Barn 8 in much the same way. While she handles core social issues with care, neither side of said controversy escapes her irreverent, satirical style.
Unferth’s approach is innovative throughout. Her story ranges from prehistoric times to beyond the existence of humans. She shifts character point of view often and seamlessly among a large cast of characters, including a chaotic ride through the hive mind of one hundred activists. Unferth is also able to drop a ton of humorous and often shocking information about gallus gallus domesticus and Big Ag and make it land like a feather with her ingenious pacing and structure.
Barn 8 is difficult to categorize, which is by far its greatest appeal. While humor helps cut the sting of the dark reality of horrific farming practices, this is a character-driven novel that spans the emotional spectrum. Unferth shows us that, though we are flawed and bound to fail at times, we are defined by our convictions and those dear to us will help us through the worst of it—if we let them.
We always think it’s over for us—and it is over—then it starts again. Reincarnation in this lifetime.
Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.