Part morality tale, part metaphor and part poetic fable, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a short novella that was a bestseller in the author’s native Korea. It tells the story of the short but hard fought life of a small hen and her struggle to find her place and purpose in the world. Naming herself Sprout, she has one goal initially – to break free from her battery cage and raise an egg of her own. She is left for dead by the callous farmers, but manages to save herself from a vicious weasel and makes her way to the barn where she finds herself rejected by almost all the other animals. The only exception is a mallard with a broken wing who she forms a close bond with. When she discovers a lone egg, she feels like her life can truly begin.
The prose is simple and straight forward, like a child’s fable, but this sparse aesthetic does not stretch as far as the scope of the novella. For a short book, it manages to touch on a lot of issues, such as adoption, prejudice, motherhood, rejection and death. This elegant and pared-down approach wastes no time with longwinded descriptions, instead setting the mood with broad and beautiful watercolour strokes of emotion. Sprout named herself ‘Sprout’ as she saw how the small proto-plant can become something beautiful and impressive. She achieves this by making her own, often difficult choices, and it is this that forms the true backbone of the story as she moves away from the farm and raises a son.
While the book says a lot about how other people view outsiders and a has slightly pessimistic view of how society functions, what really wins out is courage and determination. Sprout is a plucky character (no pun intended) and her constant drive and love can’t fail to be uplifting, even when the scales tip against her. Even in its saddest moments, there is a real understanding of who she is, what she can be and what she will be. While most of the other animals have very simple desires and knowledge about how the world works, Sprout is constantly absorbing and learning, and her interactions with the weasel are both surprising and touching. All this is set off with the sublime illustrations from Nomoco, the thing that encouraged me to pick it up in the first place. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I think this one does a very good job of explaining it. Sparse, childlike and beautiful with a lurking menace.