It’s rare to find a novel whose plot centers around animal rescue, and rarer still to encounter one that is deftly written and gets it (mostly) right—which is among the many reasons Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8 is both a terrific and important book.
Barn 8 is not necessarily an animal-rights novel—the animals themselves come second to many of the characters’ true motivations—yet Unferth’s research is so vast, its details about chickens and their lives so vivid, that it will appeal to true animal lovers as well as mainstream readers. And in the end, unlike so much fiction about animal activism, Unferth’s book is unflinching, compassionate, and real when it comes to the plight of the chickens in the story—and the main human characters feel real as well.
The story, which jumps into several points of view throughout the book, begins with Janey Flores, who at fifteen makes what turns out to be a catastrophic decision that takes her from her home city of Brooklyn to a new, unwanted life in Iowa.
There she meets Cleveland Smith, an egg-industry auditor who hires Janey and begins to train her with a sort of pride, even as Cleveland is stealing chickens and taking them to a sanctuary, as well as taking video of what happens on the inside of the battery barns, in violation of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. When Janey notices, she joins her, in part because Cleveland is the one last connection she has with her mother, who was a big influence in both of their lives, at different times. Their eventual idea to plan a million-hen rescue is less about the animals than about their own needs; they need to rescue themselves as much as they do the hens.
The action they’re planning is impossible, as even the novel’s activists acknowledge, but the characters suspend their disbelief (as readers will, too) in their passion for the animals and the cause.
While most of the activist characters felt real, one plot twist is inconceivable for readers who are well versed in animal rights (for more on this, check out this interview with Unferth), and this will get in the way for some readers. Yet Unferth has done her research (much of which appears in her Harper’s article “Cage Wars,” which took her inside the barns of a commercial egg farm), and the barbaric conditions in which hens live is well documented, in beautiful, if heartbreaking, prose. “Barn 8 was the oldest barn … in places the wire had corroded and had holes in it, holes the size of a chicken. In most rows if a hole broke through the rust and a hen fell through, she simply landed in the cage below her. The hens in that cage would peck her to death as an invader, then stand on her dead or dying body to give their feet a rest from the wire.”
The novel’s portrayal of chickens—their history, heritage, tortured present, and imagined future—is a celebration of these animals as individual beings rather than merely egg makers: “In the wild, chickens have complicated cliques and distinct voices. They talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen twitters and sings to her eggs and the chicks inside answer, peeping and burbling and clicking through the shells. Adult chickens have over thirty categories of conversation … Chickens gossip, summon, play, flirt, teach, warn, mourn, fight, praise, and promise.”
Unferth’s style and the novel’s structure, offering various points of view as well as interrogation-style interviews, offers a balance that keeps the tragedy of chickens’ lives from turning maudlin. Unferth often juxtaposes the descriptions of birds as the sentient beings they are with the grim reality in which they exist: “ … most of these hens still had that feral smart-bird spark in the eye, the instinctual Gallus need to flock, wander, arrange themselves in hierarchies, mate, rear, befriend, follow, fly their awkward short flights, bathe and preen in the dust.” Yet their fate is to be “crushed into tiny boxes (or crowded into larger boxes in the two so-called cage-free barns), half-smothered and rotting alive in the oppressive air, barely able to spread their wings, unable to look up and see anything but steel and conveyor belts and low-wattage bulbs, pressed up against strangers, beaks half-severed, feet deformed by the wire they stood on day and night.”
While the novel doesn’t flinch from the current reality—“people aren’t going to stop eating eggs, after all, or pay attention to where they come from”—we get glimpses of even the farmers’ discomfort with their industry, as when a farmer’s wife refuses to let him eat eggs due to his father’s death of heart disease at sixty-four, or drink cow’s milk for fear of diabetes.
In this novel, the planet, and humanity, loses—but not without a fight:
It was already too late. They all knew it. The enemy has clearly won. Soon all that will be left of the miracle of our planet will be the monocrops of damaged cows, pigs, dogs, hens, a few other practical species—and humans, horrible, unbeatable, disgusting humans.
But the sanctuaries were still run by warriors, and they would have their moment of no.
Barn 8 is a novel for all readers—those who love and protect animals, as well as those who have not yet been awakened to the reality of factory farming—but most of all, it’s for readers who love a good story that is at once realistic and hopeful.