Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released from her chicken coop. However, she soon discovers that her new freedom comes with a loss of comforts such as shelter and food. To make matters worse, after she narrowly escapes from a menacing weasel in an open grave, the other farmyard animals, led by an arrogant rooster, reject her. “Culled?” he says. “Nobody wants you!”
Despite the harsh reality that Sprout has to face outside the coop, she doesn’t have to face it alone. While in the open grave, she meets Straggler, a mallard duck who also lives on the farm. Like Sprout, Straggler is a misfit, a wild duck among domesticated ones. He is allowed to stay on the farm, but he keeps his distance from the other ducks. Even though he isn’t able to convince the other animals to let Sprout stay on the farm, he is able to help her fulfill one wish: To sit on an egg and watch a baby hatch from it.
One day, while wandering the fields, she finds this egg and decides to sit on it until the mother returns. The mother never does, but when Straggler finds her, he agrees to stand guard while Sprout is brooding. The hen, of course, thinks this baby will be a chick. She also believes Straggler is under the mistaken impression that she laid the egg, but he really knows more about it than she realizes. In fact, before he meets a tragic end, he gives her advice on what to do with the hatchling.
Soon after the birth of Baby (as he is known in the novel’s earlier chapters), Sprout takes him back to the farm, where she learns that the chick is actually a duckling. As a result of this discovery, she endures further humiliation. “It’s a disgrace to the comb!” the rooster tells Sprout. “A ridiculous hen has made our kind the laughingstock of the barn.” Even the guard dog, who is intimidated by the rooster and his hen, taunts Sprout. “A chicken hatching a duck!” he says. “What a ridiculous sight!”
However, Sprout doesn’t let the other animals’ insults affect her this time.
Sprout’s thoughts were jumbled, but she was anything but ashamed. She had hatched her egg with all her being. She had wished for him to be born. She’d loved him from when he was inside the egg. She was never suspicious about what was inside. Sure, he’s a duck, not a chick. Who cares? He still knows I’m his mom!
Not only does this scene show Sprout’s determination to raise Baby in the face of hostility, but it also exhibits the strong bond that has already developed between the hen and the duckling.
However, as the story progresses, this bond is tested on more than one occasion. After Sprout and Baby move to the reservoir, the leader of the farmyard ducks tries several times to convince the hen to give up the duckling. This leader feels that if Baby doesn’t grow up as a domesticated duck with clipped wings, he will experience the same fate as Straggler. Sprout refuses to let Baby go, but as the duckling learns by himself how to swim and catch fish, they both begin to realize how different they really are.
These differences threaten their happiness in the novel’s later chapters, when Sprout starts calling the adolescent duck Greentop. “It did break Sprout’s heart to see Greentop with a brooding expression on his face. He had become moody from time to time after the leader had visited them in the reeds. These episodes recurred after his feathers changed color. Sprout asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn’t confide in her.” He finally tells her that he wants to join the brace of ducks at the farm. While this hurts Sprout, she allows it for the sake of his happiness. Although his brief return to the farm turns out to be a disaster, Greentop eventually becomes a strong, confident duck that makes her proud.
Meanwhile, Sprout and Greentop have to constantly move to avoid the relentless weasel. They are especially vulnerable because they lack the shelter of the farmyard and have to make their homes in reeds, rice paddies, and caves. Despite living on the run, though, mother and child become braver over time; at one point, Sprout even defends herself against the weasel’s attacks. Later, in the story’s climax, Sprout shows the weasel just how far a mother will go to take care of her children.
Although The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is heartbreaking at times, readers cannot help but admire Sprout’s strength and courage as she not only makes her wish come true, but as she honors the memory of her friend Straggler and helps Greentop fulfill his destiny. The sparse illustrations by Nomoco offer an elegant accompaniment to the story. However, it’s the combination of simple prose, beautifully translated by Chi-Young Kim, and colorful characters that really makes this novel an unforgettable experience. In conclusion, Sun-mi Hwang’s fable is a celebration of freedom and motherhood that both teenagers and adults will probably want to read more than once.
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