Inspired by this week’s news story about KFC running out of chicken, I decided to respond the only way I know how… I devoted this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf to some of my favourite books about chickens! You can listen again to the show on the player below, but as promised here are the details of the books featured on this week’s show. Let me know if I missed any of your favourites in the comments!
Love Among the Chickens (which was first published in 1906 and revised in 1921) features Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, Wodehouse’s longest-running character. This is the only novel that Wodehouse wrote about Ukridge, but he appeared in a number of short stories. Ukridge is a schemer, with a keen eye for a get-rich-quick plan, and Love Among the Chickens sees him turn his hand to chicken farming. He (along with his wife Millie) tricks his friend Jeremy Garnet (the narrator) into travelling to Dorset to help him set up the farm – with predictably madcap results. To add to the fun, Garnie meets a girl called Phyllis on the train from London, and is instantly smitten. Phyllis’s father, Professor Derrick, is Ukridge’s new neighbour, but a spat between them puts a spanner in the works. In typical Wodehouse style, neither the love nor the chickens go exactly to plan.
Love Among the Chickens is one of only two books on today’s list that have what we might call chicken ‘characters’ – i.e. individual hens that are given names and personalities. Here, my favourite is definitely Aunt Elizabeth (named after the aunt who tried to stop Millie from marrying Ukridge), who is described as ‘a disagreeable, sardonic-looking bird’ and ‘a Bolshevist hen, always at the bottom of any disturbance in the fowl-run’. It’s hard not to like Aunt Elizabeth, really.
And here’s another feisty hen – L. Frank Baum’s Billina, who first appeared in Ozma of Oz (1907) and popped up in a number of the subsequent Oz stories. Ozma of Oz begins with Dorothy travelling to Australia with her Uncle Henry. After a storm, Dorothy finds herself washed overboard with the chicken Billina, and the two castaways arrive on the coast of the magical land of Ev in a chicken coop they’ve been using as a raft. They quickly discover that Ev is in thrall to the belligerent Nome King – and that travellers should ‘BEWARE THE WHEELERS!’ Teaming up with a clockwork man named Tik-Tok, they try to overthrow the Nome King’s reign and help Dorothy find a way home. Billina plays a similar role to that of Toto in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, except that she can talk – and argue back – in a way that the little dog couldn’t.
I considered including Ozma of Oz on this list, but I thought it would be better to feature the book in which I first encountered Billina when I was a child. Vinge’s novel – I still have my copy from when I was seven years old – is a novelization of the 1985 Disney film Return to Oz. Return to Oz is mostly an adaptation of Ozma of Oz, with elements of The Marvelous Land of Oz mixed in. It’s presented as pretty much a direct sequel to the 1939 MGM adaptation The Wizard of Oz – but without any cute songs or jaunty Technicolor. Even as a child, I loved the creepy dystopian feel of Return to Oz, where Princess Mombi (a hybrid of Mombi the witch and Princess Langwidere from Baum’s novels) plays with her detachable heads and everyone is at risk of being turned into a statue. Billina the hen is partly the plucky, clucky sidekick, but partly the most vulnerable member of the gang. One of my enduring memories of the book/film from my childhood is just how dangerous life can be for a hen. (I was also terrified of Tik-Tok but quite liked the Wheelers.)
Flipped is a YA romance (or rather, first crush) novel, told in a he-said-she-said style (i.e. there are two first-person narrators, and we see events from each perspective alternately). The book begins with the characters meeting in second grade, and we follow their relationship through to the eighth grade. Juliana Baker is the daughter of an artist, and she falls in love (in a childish, demanding way) with Bryce Loski as soon as they first meet. Bryce is more reserved, and tries to disentangle himself from Juli’s overbearing attempts to be his best friend. However, due to the style of narration, we know that the pair often misinterpret the other’s actions. The reason why Flipped is included on today’s list is that one of the big emotional moments of the book revolves around chickens. Juli keeps chickens in her backyard, and she decides to give Bryce’s family a gift of eggs each week as a way to win his affections. Bryce’s father is not happy about this, as he doesn’t trust the messy state of Juli’s garden. He tells his son that the eggs may contain salmonella, and that they should throw them away without eating them. It’s hard not to read this and see some identification between Juli and her poor messy little hens. Will the children’s friendship/relationship recover from this? Will Bryce realize that his behaviour towards Juli has sometimes been cold and cruel? These are the questions that kept fans of the novel enthralled.
The novel was adapted into a film in 2010, starring Callan McAuliffe as Bryce and Madeleine Carroll as Juli. It also had Anthony Edwards and Rebecca de Mornay as Bryce’s parents, and the late John Mahoney as his grandfather. Although the book is set in the late 90s, the film transposes the setting to the late 50s.
Lewycka’s second novel, the follow-up to 2005’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, is an unusual comic novel, combining madcap and absurd humour with dark (sometimes political) subject matter. The ‘two caravans’ of the title are the two motorhomes used to house migrant workers on a strawberry farm in Kent. An odd assortment of people have ended up sharing these cramped quarters. There’s Irina, a Ukrainian girl who believes that England is the country of her dreams, and Andriy, also from the Ukraine, a man with fantasies about English women, but who is instantly attracted to Irina. There’s Yola, the Polish supervisor who’s sleeping with the farmer, and Marta, her religious niece. Tomasz is obsessed with Yola, and Emmanuel (from Malawi) is a naïve young man who is searching for his sister. There are also two Chinese girls, but due to language barriers, the other workers simply refer to them as Chinese Girls One and Two. When the farmer is run over by his wife, the fruit-pickers are terrified they’ll get the blame. So they steal one of the caravans and head off on a hectic, comedic road trip to evade the police.
So, why is Lewycka’s book included on this chicken-themed list? After they go on the run, the gang begins to split up. The novel takes something of a darker turn here, with the sinister side of immigration (and the people who are happy to exploit, harm and abuse immigrants) coming to the fore. Tomasz takes a job in the ‘catching team’ at a battery chicken farm, and his experiences there make for one of the most memorable (and grotesque) sequences of the book. Sent into a shed containing forty thousand chickens, Tomasz enters a nightmare of sensory overload, animal cruelty, odd camaraderie, and downright confusion. It’s an incongruously visceral and ridiculous scene, and one that’s a million miles from Wodehouse’s chicken farm. While some critics have found Lewycka’s blend of comic fiction with serious political themes, I find something very compelling in her depiction of the absurdity and trauma of human existence.
I’ve talked about Atwood’s MadAddam series on the show before, but on that occasion I focused on The Year of the Flood, the 2009 sequel to Oryx and Crake. This time, I went back to the first novel of the trilogy because that’s where we first learn about the chickens.
Oryx and Crake begins in a post-apocalyptic world, where a man known only as Snowman and a group of humanoid creatures called Crakers appear to be the only survivors. Flashbacks transport us to events prior to the end of the world, and we begin to discover more about Snowman’s identity. As a child in a world controlled by major corporations, Jimmy grows up in the HelthWyzer compound. He forms a friendship with a bright Science student named Glenn, and the two of them play a video game named Extinctathon (from which they both take nicknames, Glenn’s being Crake). There’s lots I could say about the pre-apocalyptic world of Oryx and Crake – and of the way in which Atwood guides us through the events that transform Jimmy into Snowman – but of most relevance to today’s list is the novel’s presentation of bioengineering. The book features a number of engineered species, from the pigoons (pigs with human tissue intended for use in transplant surgery) to the rakunks (racoon/skunk hybrids), but it is the horrific image of engineered chickens that really stands out. In Chapter 8, Crake/Glenn takes Jimmy to see the latest corporate creation – chickens engineered to be nothing but edible parts, with no brain, no nervous system, and no inedible limbs. Jimmy is horrified, but Crake tells him that ‘they’ve already got the takeout franchise operation in place’. These will be ChickieNobs, to be sold in Buckets o’ Nubbins to the fast food consumer. Like so much of Atwood’s novel, the ChickieNobs raise an ethical question: is it crueller to breed these insentient mounds of flesh or the sentient clucking hens of the farmyard?
Former vet Manda Scott has made a name for herself writing historical novels (as M.C. Scott), but her first three books were actually crime fiction novels, which all featured psychiatrist Kellen Stewart. In the first novel, Hen’s Teeth, Kellen is introduced as having recently broken up from her girlfriend, given up a medical practice, and moved from a rural retreat back to urban Glasgow. However, Kellen’s attempts to move on with her life are completely disrupted when she receives a phone call informing her that her ex, Bridget, is dead. The doctor’s initial assessment is a heart attack, but Bridget’s current girlfriend (Kellen’s old friend Caroline) believes that something more suspicious is going on. And, of course, it is – Kellen quickly discovers that Bridget’s brother Malcolm has also died in suspicious circumstances.
As she returns to the farm she once shared with Bridget – with her pathologist friend Lee in tow – Kellen intends to take Caroline’s suspicions seriously. However, she has little time for Caroline’s distracted comments about the farm birds: ‘Chickens came very low on my list of priorities,’ she says. But how significant are these chickens, a clutch of bantam hens brought to the farm by Malcolm the day before he died? And what has this to do with Bridget’s death? As with all of Scott’s crime fiction, while the humans may be the main characters, the welfare and treatment of animals is a key aspect of the plot.
To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show here: