he word “brood” is a double entendre, meaning a brood of chickens or even a brood of children, and also “to brood,” which brings to mind someone like Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights.
The novel brood by Jackie Polzin brings both of these aspects into play. This is the penultimate novel in our series launched by The Center for Fiction, which chose a prize-winning writer among several debut novelists. We have initiated “The People’s Prize,” to make our own selection among these novels. The last and final novel will be The Five Wounds, which I encourage you to pick up and read during the next month.
The novel brood begins in Minnesota with the narrator’s first week of owning chickens. Her friend, Helen, appears and asks, “Do the chickens know their names?” and “Do chickens like to be pet?” We are brought into the world of chickens, their maintenance, their habitat, their welfare. Four chickens, Gloria, Gam Gam, Miss Hennepin County, and Darkness, occupy our thoughts and the thoughts of the narrator. “Do the chickens think of warmer times?” The unnamed narrator poses that question and then answers it: “They do not. By the time a snowflake has landed, snowflakes are all a chicken has ever known. Theirs is a world of only snowflakes or only not.” I especially responded to the narrator’s style of writing and the way she layered her observations and her sorrow.
The book is structured into a series of short chapters, opening up from thoughts about chickens to thoughts about motherhood. Helen brings her toddler to be babysat, a boy who is ferocious in his cries. The child wails and is miserable. The narrator in desperation tries a chicken remedy: “Finally, I pinned his arms to his body and tucked him between my elbow and the curve of his waist. This is one way that chickens like to be held. His cries tapered to a trembling whimper.” The book then pairs a meditation on chickens and their care along with her other job as a housecleaner, including her identity as a neighbor and a wife. She returns to a house to clean where unfortunately her miscarriage had begun to happen. She waits for the results of her husband’s job interview in California. She visits her mother. The tension and drama of the book is reserved for the chickens. The meditations are about struggling with her unfulfilled identity as a mother.
ONE READER’S COMMENTS
“There is such a sweet, gentle sadness here, the lives and fates of the chickens running side by side with those of the main character and her husband, like two sled tracks in the snow. Who is to decide which sled track is more ‘important’ in the big scheme of things? (Or the eyes of God, if you will.) Everything is on the same journey, and our trials and triumphs seem to correspond, if not mirror each other, yeah? She could not keep the chickens safe. She could not have a baby. She could not keep. She could not have. Everyone’s story, one way or another.”
AND ANOTHER READER
These next few paragraphs belong to one of our readers: “I just finished brood. No time travel this time, but somewhat similar to the novel we read earlier by Patricia Lockwood called, No One is Talking About This in the similar mix of the mundane with personal pain and tragedy. I had no idea what it would be about, and I had to smile when I discovered it really was about chickens.
“This reminds me of my sister on her farm. She has always kept chickens sometimes hatching but usually starting from chicks. All in this book has happened to her over her course of 30+ years on the farm. My sister’s chickens are a beautiful element in her picturesque setting. The coop is one of the original homestead structures. My nephew just redid the roof and added solar powered doors which may not work for long but are cool enough to be featured in one of his Instagram posts. Her chickens did not suffer from raccoons, but many were destroyed by foxes and the neighbors’ dogs over the years. As snow can happen in the summer at their altitude, some froze.
“My mother (a “real farm” girl) was somewhat critical of the expense and waste, since when the chickens did survive, there were far too many eggs. My kids loved the rituals of checking for eggs and opening the coop in the morning and so easily “herding” them in at night. They naturally head back in at sunset. They were a bit scared of each year’s rooster who was notoriously nasty and pecked at them.
“So many good memories thanks to her brood. The details in the book are so realistic,
I wonder if this is classified as fiction or not. I loved the narrator’s friend Helen’s questions from the start and had to laugh that I had never thought about chickens
that way. The attempts of Helen’s daughter, Katherine, to treat the chickens as pets that would love and remember her were described with what seemed to me a bit of disgust. (Something was off there.)
“I was left wondering if there ever could be a baby, or if they just had to go and choose another path. My sister firmly believes that deaths on a farm teaches about life. It is part of 4H. So, did the author choose the analogy as a way of recovering and healing? Or were the chickens really the story and the loss of the baby added for depth? For me this was a million times more interesting than Nobody is Talking About This, but infinitely sadder. Her marriage seems great, but she is jealous of the photos of the husband’s ex who “looks fertile.” She loves her friend Helen but is sadly jealous of her fertility. She is sad about the chickens’ deaths but gradually seems to take them in stride. This is life. The title is perfect both for the chickens and the people she has and doesn’t have in her life.”
Here’s an interview with Jackie Polzin in which she says that she indeed kept chickens and did struggle with infertility, which I think gives the book some of its raw power.
There is nothing about family ties in Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, (premiered 1953) nothing about being a father or a husband, unfulfilled or otherwise. In another play called Zoo Story (1958) in the same vein of the theatre of the absurd, there are only two main characters, and yet we do know their family histories. One has a wife and two daughters; one has parents who died when he was young, and so creates a make-shift family in the rooming house where he lives, including a Puerto Rican family and a drag queen, among others. The absence in Beckett’s play of this richness engenders its own kind of sadness: no bulwark to buoy the vagrants up; nothing to fight against.
The French philosophers would argue that the very absence of family could provoke an extended discussion of the way that absent family casts a shadow over the play. Where did the two vagabonds come from? Ex nihilo? Out of nothing? Fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus? There is much brooding in the play, but only of the mulling things over variety. Would this lack of engendering open up a feminist critique of the play? What do you think, Dear Reader, of this missing link?
This video clip is called a soundscape of chickens squawking. In case you’re thinking of getting chickens, this will get you in the mood.