BOOK REVIEW: The Chicken Chronicles

The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker

Alternately transcendent and maddening is how I’d describe Alice Walker’s written dedication to her pet hens, The Chicken Chronicles.

The wonderful thing about Chronicles is how lovingly the author describes the birds and their individual lives. No doubt, many readers drawn by the “star power” of the author’s name alone will learn that chickens do indeed have individual personalities, rich lives, friendships, intelligence, and behavior comparable to that of family pets. Having previously only known chickens as intended meals, Walker herself often seems surprised by their depth:

Babe settled into my arms…like she’d always been there, drowsy and quiet, as if she were a cat. Who knew?

When a chicken dies in an accident, Walker mourns her. So too, do the other hens. Gertrude clearly misses her special friend, Bobbie; the two birds had been close companions in the chicken yard.

From the beginning, Walker makes clear that this is no Kingsolver-esque “foodie” journey: her chickens will  not  be eaten. True, Walker does collect the eggs they periodically lay, but let’s face it, if unfertilized, chicken eggs are just a waste product anyway. Early in the book, Walker describes herself as a

Mostly vegetarian person who still eats chicken soup when I’m sick and roast chicken when I can’t resist. But I could not have eaten Babe.

(I found myself hoping that by the end of her journey, the friendship of the hens would convince Walker to give up bird meat entirely.) Like many of us “pet people,” Walker begins to see her relationship with her animal companions as something of a parent-child connection; midway through the book, she begins referring to herself in third person as “Mommy.” I won’t begrudge her for this bit of whimsy, if I were to write a book about my three cats, I would no doubt do the same. (We companion animal devotees are a bit, well, different.) And like many of our pampered cats and dogs, Walker’s chickens lead lives of ease and luxury, so radically different than their pathetic and abused factory-farm brethren:

It delighted me that her experience of being a chicken on earth among humans was a loving one. That she ate only the best food, slept in a clean chicken house, had a nest ready for she and her eggs, should she ever happen to lay any. If someone had tried to tell Babe about the cruelty done to chickens by humans, and she could understand the language, she would not have believed them.

How does Walker circumnavigate the elephant in the room, the fact that billions of chickens no less precious are intensively farmed and slaughtered, and the manner in which most modern Americans relate to chickens is only as an ingredient?

In Alice Walker, we see the vegetarian in her struggling mightily to show her face. She admits of herself,

There was part of her that did cry when she was eating something that once was beautiful in its own feathers or scales

She aches with empathy for the poor creatures who, through no fault of their own, have run into the darker side of humanity:

She sees pictures of other birds, no less wondrous than you, covered with oil and dying of suffocation and despair. How can they fathom what is happening to them?

There’s even a bit of Dreaded Comparison material in here, when Walker speaks of the “slob hunters” who trample through her peaceful country property:

The bucks were routinely hunted by…but Mommy can’t claim to know who these hunters were. They were people who shot the male deer, the bucks (young black men were called bucks and hunted when they ran away from enslavement in the Old South; Indian men were likewise called bucks and hunted for many years), and placed them over the tops of their cars as they drove back to the city—never noticing apparently how beautiful (left alive) was the being whose life they destroyed—often while drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and eating candy bars. Beer cans, cigarette butts, and candy wrappers were some of the debris left behind.

Walker remains haunted by the fact that she had to kill chickens for food as a child. Growing up as a poor, rural family in the 1940s and 50s, the Walkers had no choice but to raise and slaughter animals to survive. I don’t begrudge them, or anyone in that situation, for taking animals’ lives. And while for the Walker family, killing was a matter of survival, not choice, they still suffered with human guilt over betraying the beings they had raised. The author calls the annual pig slaughter

A yearly routine for which her parents prepared with palpable dread. They were losing creatures they liked, creatures they’d talked to and at every day. They would be saying goodbye to personalities they knew, personalities who knew them.

She writes of neighboring dairy farmers who

told stories of how desperately the cows fought to keep their calves, how they tried to hide them after they were born. But where could they hide them? Only in the brush and forest so well known to humans.

And she wrote of her childhood connection to another animal her family reared for slaughter:

[Buddy the bull] seemed to her to have a quiet and pensive inner life. Who was Buddy? How would Buddy have designed his life? As a child she had asked this question endlessly. As a grown-up she had forgotten it.

Indeed, this “forgetting” is what enables Walker, like most people, to continue eating meat, even after it became a behavior of choice and habit rather than necessity. And thus begins a convoluted odyssey which had Walker waffling over her dietary choices clear through the end of the book.

While in India, she vows not to eat the flesh of any living creature, and when she accidentally bites into a chicken curry, she quickly rejects it. I was happy to see this, and was hoping it signaled the author’s transition to full-time vegetarianism. Later however, we have the chapter “Grandfather Gandhi-and Mommy’s Experiments with Reality,” which was by far the worst in the book, in my opinion. With this chapter we plunge into the tiresome rationalization of the “happy meat” movement. Yes, you’ve heard it all before: all the woo-woo BS about giving thanks to the animal’s spirit and stroking the head with one hand while plunging in the knife with another. And Walker catalogues all of her meaty “missteps”: chicken broth here, goat meat there.  After a meditation on “friendly” killing, Walker speaks that such a scene

Reminds humans that though we must eat other living beings to live, we do not have to withdraw our affection when it is most needed and abandon our sustainers in the moment of transition.

Oh, for Pete’s sake, Alice. You are a bestselling author. You live in America, in one of the most vegetarian-friendly states of them all. Yes, some of human beings have no choice but to eat meat to survive, but for those of us who are comfortable and lucky enough to own land, vacation to foreign lands, eat out at restaurants, and keep pets—guess what. We have a choice. And when killing goes from necessity to personal choice, it also “transitions” to selfishness, no matter how many smiley faces we paint onto it. You know that. You no doubt have friends who have gone decades without eating animal flesh, and are both healthy and happy.

Later, she even trots out the old  omnivore bingo:

Some people think it is enough that humans don’t eat meat, but this avoids consideration of all the animals murdered in their beds as land is cleared to grow veggies and grain. Grain and veggies, and fruit too, that you, my girls, and vegetarian humans enjoy.

Most people know it’s impossible to exist without unintentionally causing harm to others. Our choices may indeed have unforeseen consequences for other people, animals, or the environment we share. The best we can do is do our best, and be honest about it. However, wouldn’t we plow over far fewer animals’ nests if we weren’t to raise billions of tons of  grain  to feed the livestock we will later consume?

In all, however, The Chicken Chronicles  is an important contribution to animal-focused literature, and will most likely cause many readers to ponder the lives and welfare of chickens for the first time. Folks who will never pick up a Karen Davis or Jeffrey Masson book will be drawn by the heavyweight literary fame of the author. Even better, this is a book about not eatinga group of chickens as much as it about the chickens themselves. In a market awash in slaughter tomes from snooty foodies, that’s a refreshing and important thing.

(Review originally appeared at goodreads.com)

 

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