On Janey’s fifteenth birthday, her mother decides she’s old enough to learn the truth: her real father is living in southern Iowa. Furious, Janey boards a bus to the midwest against her mother’s wishes. In Barn 8, Deb Olin Unferth — an associate professor at the University of Texas — explores the way singular decisions rearrange people’s destinies. For Janey, the decision to board that bus leads to a high-stakes heist to steal one million chickens.
After a horrible tragedy — one that Unferth presents with heartrending compassion — Janey ends up stranded and desperate at her father’s filthy bachelor pad. She meets Cleveland, an underappreciated auditor for the US egg industry who’s trapped in a stale marriage. Despite Janey’s lack of marketable skills, Cleveland manages to secure an auditor position for her, owing to the fact that Cleveland grew up idolizing Janey’s mother.
The two have little in common: Cleveland is a straight-laced rule follower, dedicated to her work, while Janey is rash, unpredictable, and couldn’t care less about her new job. However, they are bonded by a deep dissatisfaction with their lives and a desperation to change their situations. With nothing to lose, they devise a plan to empty out an entire industrial egg farm, an act of mercy for the one million birds imprisoned inside.
One of the most thought-provoking aspects of the novel is the lack of a primary antagonist. There is no heartless farmer, no evil corporate overlord striving only for profit, chicken welfare be damned.
We used to eat eggs a few times a year, but now they are everywhere, emerging from the nation’s farms at an alarming rate, seventy-five billion per year. Citizens must eat as many as we can. It’s our patriotic duty.
Without a single person to blame for the maltreatment of the chickens, we are forced to judge the industrial food machine as a whole. Implicated in this system are all of us who eat eggs. Are we the antagonists in this story?
Janey and Cleveland have no idea where to begin with a heist of their proposed scale, so they attempt to enlist Dill, a disgraced former leader of the animal rights movement who lives in his garage because his husband threw him out of the house. Reluctantly, he agrees to help, knowing it will be the final straw in his crumbling marriage. Dill brings in Annabelle Green, a radical activist hiding from the law in a ramshackle houseboat within a chemical contamination site. Like Janey and Cleveland, these characters share a desperation. If all is lost anyway, why not take a crazy chance on this impossible heist?
Dill and Annabelle call on former friends working undercover on egg farms as “investigators,” secretly recording the abuses occurring on an industrial scale away from the public eye. These radicals are never presented cartoonishly, as animal extremists so often are, and their motivations are perfectly understandable to even the ardent meat eater.
They’d spent twelve-hour days placing the baby-soft beaks of chicks into hot-iron guillotines, searing off the tips, while the chicks struggled and their faces smoked. Hens. Sweet little puffs. The solid adventure of saving them: Who didn’t want to be part of it? Who wouldn’t?
The novel is structured into four parts, with the second and third sections reminiscent of The Monkey Wrench Gang or James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man on Wire. There are elements of a traditional heist story, though the heist has nothing to do with personal gain and everything to do with making a statement. The characters are extraordinarily quirky, and the suspense and absurdity compounds as their plan becomes increasingly convoluted. Some of the emotional momentum built around Janey and Cleveland is lost in the frenetic introduction of new characters and plot details, but their emotional arcs resolve in the final section.
Unferth does not spare any details in her poetic descriptions, “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.” While the novel is playful and very funny, there are frequent hard looks at what is ultimately a very screwed up food system, one our descendants may look back on and wonder, How did otherwise decent people justify that?
It’s a great question, one Unferth forces us to look at unflinchingly without preaching or shaming. In the face of impending climate disaster exacerbated by industrial farming practices, is the human race as desperate as Janey, Cleveland, Dill, and Annabelle? What do we have left to lose? Like Janey, will the decision we make in this moment determine our fate? Barn 8 insists that we are worth saving, “that hens, and indeed all creatures, including arrogant, ignorant humans, are not ugly, stupid, or eligible for ownership.”
By Deb Olin Unferth
Published March 3, 2020