Deb Olin Unferth’s darkly comic novel imagines a chicken heist gone wrong—and takes on the factory farming industry.
The average American eats about 279 eggs each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that’s no surprise. Eggs are cheap and available everywhere, and sandwiches featuring them are a staple of fast-food restaurant value menus. They also have a reputation for being healthy, thanks to decades of advertising campaigns by agricultural lobbyists. (Though, as with many “healthy” things, that claim has come under scrutiny.) For years, people seemed content with their limited supermarket options, but as terms like “free range,” “organic,” and “animal welfare” have entered the common lexicon, there’s been a growing awareness of where our food comes from. If you’re spending two bucks for a dozen eggs at your local supermarket, the hens that produced them aren’t living their best lives frolicking in open fields.
That sad fact has long fascinated Austin author Deb Olin Unferth, who wrote a deep-dive Harper’s feature on industrial chicken farming in 2014. The horrors she uncovered partly inspired Barn 8, a wildly inventive novel about the factory farms that produce eggs and the animal-rights activists who are determined to change the industry. It’s a powerful book and a dazzling feat of imagination from one of the country’s most exciting authors.
Barn 8 begins with Janey, a 15-year-old girl raised by a single mother in New York, taking a bus to the Midwest in search of the father she’s just learned she had. (Her mother had lied to her for years, claiming her dad was an anonymous sperm donor.) The girl “peeled off from her former self, left the old Janey behind,” determined to punish her mother for her yearslong deceit.
When her mother is killed in a car accident, Janey has no choice but to move in with her father permanently, living in his sad apartment in an Iowa town where big ag reigns supreme. She sleepwalks through high school, “death-marked, city-stamped, only a quarter Latina, but not middle-American white either.”
After graduating, still aimless and at the loosest of ends, Janey takes a job as an auditor for the egg industry. She’s motivated by the fact that Cleveland, a woman whom Janey’s mother used to babysit, would be her boss. Curious to learn more about her late mother, Janey tags along with Cleveland on barn inspections. They aren’t a natural fit: Cleveland suspects the teen is “a runt with an attitude problem”; Janey disdains her supervisor’s hidebound insistence on doing her job by the book.
The two find common ground, however, when Janey learns that Cleveland has been stealing hens from factory farms and delivering them to an animal-rights group. Janey proposes a heist on a somewhat bigger scale: freeing every single hen from one of the area’s farms. An idealist who idolizes both Malcolm X and her late workers-rights activist grandfather, she sees it as a chance to put her social justice ideals into action. Plus, she’s a fan of chaos for its own sake. As for Cleveland, she balks at first, but then agrees, frustrated that the noncompliant farmers she’s reported to her bosses never face consequences. The two hatch a plan to steal a million hens under the cover of night. They team up with an embittered activist named Dill, plus a network of undercover investigators he used to oversee. They intend to take the purloined poultry to animal sanctuaries, where they can live new, cage-free lives. Perhaps needless to say, the plan does not go smoothly.
Unferth has chosen a fascinating, unusual structure for Barn 8. The novel jumps back and forth in time, the perspective shifting among characters. This includes a hen named Bwwaauk, whose escape from a barn inspired Cleveland to strike out on her chicken-thieving path. It’s a testament to Unferth’s talent that she’s able to pull this off; the brief chapters featuring Bwwaauk are surprisingly tender and somehow never come across as gimmicky. An omniscient narrator punctuates the story with explanations of what will happen in the future. These are all risky choices, but in Unferth’s capable hands, they work.
Barn 8 is unmistakably a social novel in the vein of The Jungle. Unlike Upton Sinclair’s book, though, this isn’t a heavy-handed critique masquerading as a work of fiction. The farmers and animal-rights activists are all portrayed as complex people, sometimes noble, often flawed, and not stand-ins for ideas.
Still, there’s no doubt that Unferth—justifiably—finds industrial farming to be a barbaric practice. In one scene, Janey discovers Cleveland “taking photos, not of fluffed-up chicks, but of fucked-up hens. Hens crowded behind the wire, hens with raw wounds, hens with prolapsed uteruses, hens dead in a bin in a bloody heap.” In another, Janey is horrified by the euphemisms the egg industry uses: “‘forced molting’ (i.e., reducing their food to the point where they don’t quite die), ‘beak trimming’ (i.e., cutting off their faces).”
Remarkably, Unferth finds ways to leaven the novel with humor. In one passage, Janey fumes about Cleveland, whom she describes as “named for a U.S. president who hadn’t even done anything, twice.” Her use of humor also seems likely to appeal to those who look at animal-rights issues with a jaundiced eye—the more strident and headline-seeking activists in that arena have poisoned the well a bit, leading to the stereotype that they’re all radicals who throw paint on people wearing fur coats. But Unferth’s novel has the potential to change people’s minds; while she appeals to her readers’ logic and emotion, it’s by no means a humorlessly didactic book.
Barn 8 is at its heart a dark book, and Unferth is unsparing in her assessment of how “horrible, unbeatable, disgusting humans” have treated the earth and its nonhuman creatures. It’s bleak, but also brilliant. Unferth is a gifted writer with a sprawling imagination and a message that the country desperately needs to hear: When we hurt animals, we also hurt ourselves, and our dishonesty and apathy serve no good purpose. “No animal stands a chance against us,” one character reflects. “We’ll kill anything alive, right where it’s standing, wherever and whatever it is, and we’ll have plenty of excuses for it.” Maybe it’s too late to change, Unferth seems to say, but we owe it to the world to try.
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