The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang Penguin $15.00 US, $16.00 CAN, ISBN: 978-0-14-312320-0, 134 pages
It is no wonder the book The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly became an instant Korean classic and decade-long bestseller when it was first published in 2000.It is philosophical without being preachy, heartfelt without being maudlin or sentimental, challenging without being arrogant or insulting.
Its 133 pages has a simple plot: Sprout, an egg-laying hen cooped up and past her prime — and suffering from an existential depression because of her childlessness– longs to have a child. It is an improbable wish, of course. Sprout is caged and only one rooster resides on the farm, a rooster who is happily mated. But wishes often come true if fate and a strong will are present.
After a series of life-threatening incidents brought about by the humans and animals on the farm’s pecking-order, Sprout becomes a mother. But even then, she has emotional and natural challenges to contend with.
The heroine (who has no name but the name she gives herself) could be a protagonist in a story on slavery, status and restrictions, infertility, adoption, cross-cultural families, committing to a dream, or even animal rights. But while all these are present, the story is much more than all these. That is the power of a fable.
As is also common in a fable, the vocabulary is accessible and the story is universal. The setting is a farm but not specifically a Korean farm. Although the story is about an isolated female and her wish for even one child, it can speak to old and young and to anyone who has ever longed to do what he thinks he/she was born to do. The story is about greatness of soul, perseverance, parental sacrifice, belonging and purpose. And it is also about fulfillment and accomplishing a dream in spite of the odds.
The line-drawing illustrations give the book a childlike feel but the story itself has such strong imagery, children will be able to “see” the story unfold before their eyes. However like all great children books — Charlotte’s Web, for instance– this novel transcends its genre. Highly, highly recommended.