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 born again."
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 financial success."
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 face."
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. Rhea's 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: