Fresh Eggs: An American Fable
By Rob Levandoski
(Sag Harbor, NY, The Permanent Press 2002)
$26 hardcover, 279 pages.
To order from the publisher call 631-725-1101 or go to
©Book Review by Karen Davis, PhD
"There are many things more toxic than chemicals," Pirooz says.
"Such as living on a concentration camp for chickens."
"She's allergic to chickens?"
"To the way they are being forced to live perhaps."
"A psychological allergy you mean?"
Pirooz nods and shrugs at the same time. "Perhaps a spiritual one."
George Bernard Shaw said that custom will reconcile people to any
atrocity. Fortunately not everyone gets reconciled; if so, there
would be no social justice movements, no moral progress, no strong
and growing animal advocacy movement as there is in many parts of the
world today. In the form of magical realism, Fresh Eggs documents the
growing unreconciliation of the American public to the atrocity of
battery hen cages and treating creatures like machines. Set in the
second half of the 20th century when the battery-cage system of egg
production was established, it shows the egg industry, and the life
of chickens both happy and sad, through the consciousness of a child
from her infancy to her 18th year.
Rhea Cassowary is born to a fifth-generation farm family in Ohio just
when her father, Calvin, decides to save the family farm by selling
his soul and his family to Gallinipper Foods, an agribusiness
company. Lying in her crib, Rhea's peace is forever shattered by a
sudden banging outside her window. The day Calvin takes his infant
daughter through a battery henhouse for the first time, raising her
up from the ground "so she can see over his shoulder," she recognizes
the cause of the banging, and in doing so "feels as if she is being
The tunnel is filled from floor to ceiling with rows of strange white
creatures. Their faces come to sharp points. They have wild sideways
eyes. Bags of red skin hang from their chins. They are packed so
tightly in their cribs-their cages-that it is hard to tell where once
creature ends and another begins. They are all afraid, that much is
for certain. And they are all crying and begging to be set free. So
Rhea cries, too, and begs to be free of this terrible square tunnel.
But the tunnel goes on forever, and the air is heavy and wet and hard
to breathe, and the dizzying lights hanging overhead are much too
bright, and her father's jibber-jabbering and reassuring pats on her
wet bottom assure her of nothing. The tunnel just goes on and on. The
white creatures just cry and beg and stare at her sideways, necks
stretched long through the bars in their crowded cribs.
Calvin is a normally decent, morally muddled man who wanted to be an
art teacher, but feeling the Calvinist weight of generations of
Cassowarys expecting him to do his duty at any cost, he gave up his
dream and took over the farm. He slides further into betrayal by
agreeing to become a battery-hen operation manager for Gallinipper
Foods, rationalizing that here "he'll find fulfillment and joy and
The bane of Calvin's ambition is his daughter Rhea, whom he loves but
is prepared to sacrifice on the altar of his career and skewed ideas
of duty and salvation. Watching the chicken catchers break hens'
bones and drive over fleeing hens for fun, he is "reviled, but not
surprised." Calvin is the type to be reconciled, but Rhea, named
after the oldest of Greek Gods or Mother of the Universe, is
different. The images of cruelty and terror and her father's
complicity seep through the holes in her protective "magic cloak"
into her "porous memory."
When the chicken catchers drive away with their tortured cargo, her
cloak becomes "Superman's cape," and though the "rows of sad chickens
give her bad dreams and bad thoughts" and the sense of their fear is
"in her nostrils and on her tongue," Rhea sneaks into the just
emptied house where she sees "splotches of blood and runny manure.
Sees the flattened chickens on the floor. Sees that some of the empty
cages are not empty. She sees torn legs-translucent white bones,
dribbles of yellow fat, shreds of white skin, bloody pink meat-fixed
to the wire floors by gripping toes. She sees torn wings caught in
the wire walls. She sees severed heads, beaks plier-locked on the
wire doors, necks like feathery spigots dripping blood." In the midst
of this hellhole she "hears a throaty plea" rise from the manure pit
beneath the cages, and lowering herself into the manure she reaches
for a hen who "springs for the open door." She names this hen Miss
Lucky Pants-the name her grandmother gave her for not drowning in the
manure pit she plunged into to save the hen. Later she liberates a
house full of thousands of hens.
The crux of the conflict between Rhea and her father and his company
occurs during their tour of Gallinipper's hatchery operation. The
Gallinipper men go on about how great everything is-the debeaking
machines, comb removal (dubbing) machines, etc., and how the chicks
"feel no more pain than you do when you clip your toenails." A
debeaking operator guides a chick's "nub of a beak toward a pair of
blades Bzzzzzzp." The chick evacuates watery manure, is dropped into
a tray, another chick is picked up, and the entire merciless
operation is said to be "to everybody's advantage." During lunch in a
circus tent outside the hatchery buildings, the little girl Rhea "not
only refuses to eat, but climbs up on the tables and runs the full
length of the tent, kicking the chicken tubs left and right." The
Gallinipper men warn Calvin that Rhea is not "copacetic." Maybe she
needs "professional help." Probably a "girl thing." Amid this talk,
Rhea feels a burning itch in her chest "as if her heart was lighting
matches." She tells her father, "I had a feather growing between my
nippie-nips." "Behave," he tells her.
Fresh Eggs is a modern fable, a form of creative fiction in which the
moral teachers are animals and their listeners. Told in a folksy way,
this book has plenty of humor, but the absorbing story isn't funny or
intended to be. It's about vicarious suffering so deep that the
suffering manifests itself in a physical resemblance of the vicarious
sufferer, Rhea, to the trapped and tormented birds of the egg
industry. Rob Levandoski challenges us (as noted on the book jacket)
to rethink our treatment of creatures more vulnerable than ourselves
including our children. Dramatizing links between child abuse and
animal abuse, he explores the violence of violation and captures the
chill humor of clashes between Western efficiency models of thought
and experiences that elude and transcend these models.
As Rhea's feathers sprout softly over her body, her stepmother Donna
discovers them, tears open the by now pubescent Rhea's shirt in front
of her father, and Calvin, instead of comforting and protecting his
daughter, rips her feathers out from under her bra as if he were
plucking "some goddamn chicken." He subsequently decides to use Rhea
to "save" the family egg business by prostituting her as a touring
circus freak and company mascot in media commercials. After Rhea
stages her own death with feathers and blood (a mixture of her own
with those of chickens), to get her father's attention and escape her
exploitation as Rhea the Feather Girl, her father makes a deal with
Gallinipper's biotech company EggGenics to have his daughter cloned
like the 7-52 Super Hens who are "saving" the farm and making the
company rich. Is it right or wrong treating his daughter like a
replacement pullet? CEO Bob Gallinipper blandly assures him it's not:
"God shares his secrets. First the Bible, now genetics."
Donna the stepmother, eager to donate her eggs for nuclear insertion
of Rhea's feather genes so she can have a baby to "save" her
"childless" marriage, tells Calvin to buck up: "No. 1, we need a
child for personal, psychological reasons. No. 2, the farm needs an
heir. No. 3, Bob Gallinipper wants his mascot back so he can sell
more of our eggs. In sum, this cloning thing isn't some filthy crime
against God and nature. It's a good thing that makes everybody rich
in every way." Likewise, EggGenics Special Projects Director Sophia
Theophaneia, with "an appreciative wink from Bob Gallinipper," tells
Calvin that "as a Christian and a woman and a scientist, I'm
comfortable with it."
Threading through the story is The Conference of the Birds, an
800-year-old Persian philosophical poem given to Rhea by Dr. Pirooz
Aram, the only psychiatrist she visits who fathoms her condition.
Growing up, she reads by flashlight at night from this book to the
remnant flock of the old family farm (now mixed with the genes of
Miss Lucky Pants). Looking like "a giant owl sitting here, deep-set
eyes blinking," she sits on the bottom perch, surrounded by her
chickens who are "huddled on the ascending perches like people at a
football game" making an occasional cluck and bruck. Years later,
after Rhea fakes her death, the rooster Junior Jr. remembers these
nights. "He didn't understand a word she was reading. But he still
remembers the soft and patient sounds that tumbled from her beakless
In his Acknowledgments, Rob Levandoski, who lives on his family's
farm in Hinckley, Ohio and is the author of two other popular and
acclaimed novels, kindly thanks "Karen Davis, Ph.D. whose book
Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs, proved to be an important resource,
both technically and spiritually." Fresh Eggs won Levandoski a
prestigious Individual Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council
and an appreciative review in The New York Times on September 15,
2002, although the reviewer, Sally Eckhoff, felt Fresh Eggs dodged
the book's issues by having Calvin's daughter grow feathers. I
disagree. The feathers add pertinent dimension to issues the book
raises, like the intimacies and interminglings between humans and
other species that are considered permissible and those considered
taboo. Rhea's feathers and the feelings they signify are unacceptable
but mingling human body tissue with the tortured body tissue of dead
birds, chick embryos, chicken eggs, hen hormones, and genes is okay,
as Bob Gallinipper smirks confidently to Calvin. Rhea's feathers
don't fit the mold: they're like the chicken behaviors that don't fit
the cage or the concept of chickens as machines. The feathers have
psychological validity and are part of a spiritual history of
vicarious suffering which the book brings out. They're a sign of
protest against the evil "normal":
"I can't sell the farm and you know it."
"But you can sell your daughter?"
"There's nothing wrong with the way I treat my chickens."
"Rhea apparently does not agree."
Karen Davis, PhD, is the founder and President of United Poultry
Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and
respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of Prisoned
Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry;
A Home for Henny; Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless
"Poultry" Potpourri"; and More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth,
Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001). For more information about
United Poultry Concerns, visit www.UPC-online.org.
©For permission to reprint this review, contact Karen@UPC-online.org
or call 757-678-7875 (fax 5070) or write to:
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(UPC Book Review: Fresh Eggs: An American Fable)