Chasing A Dream: A Review of Hwang Sun-Mi’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
Hwang Sun-Mi’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a simple story with a not-so-subtle underlying message.
In my personal quest to better understand Korean culture, I have consciously picked up books written by Korean authors. Compared to Korean music (BTS), dramas (Squid Game) or movies (Parasite), Korean novels have received much less attention internationally and few have been translated into other languages. But in this relatively shallow pool, Hwang Sun-Mi’s short novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly stood out - for the fact that it had been translated into 27 different languages and been adapted into a movie.
The author, Hwang Sun-Mi, is a bestselling author today, but she did not have the easiest of childhoods. Born in 1963, just over a decade after the Korean War came to a ceasefire, and when South Korea was just as poor as its northern neighbour, Hwang was not presented with many academic opportunities. Despite this, from a very young age, she was attracted to books and found her pleasure in her school's tiny library. She eventually graduated from university and established a career in writing. Now, through her books, she is inspiring children to go after their dreams.
“The egg rolled to a stop upon reaching the wire mesh of the coop. Sprout looked at it - a chalky egg flecked with blood. She hadn’t laid an egg in two days; she doubted she could anymore. Yet there it was - one small, sad egg.” That was the story of Sprout, our protagonist, and that was the tone of our fable. “Her heart emptied of feeling every time the farmer’s wife took her eggs,” Hwang wrote. This will not just be a cheery tale. This story will be deep and heavy.
Sprout was a hen that was stuck inside a coop laying eggs. She was sick of her life and longed for the yard outside, just out of the coop where she has a tiny bit of freedom. “Sprout had harbored a secret desire - to hatch an egg and watch the birth of her chick,” the author promised in Chapter One. So when Sprout somehow escaped the coop, it was easy to jump on the ride with Sprout and her fellow animal companions because we were all eager to see how she would adjust and whether she would hatch her own egg.
Sprout met a friend on this ride - Straggler - who not only helped with her escape, but gave her a chance to fulfill her dream. The path that Hwang set Sprout on was windy, with twists and turns, but not confusing. The author also crafted a very likeable protagonist in Sprout - she was not perfect; in fact, she had many flaws. But she also longed for freedom, stood up to her biggest fear, and sacrificed for others. Over time, she recovered and became a competent hen who was more than capable of taking on her biggest nemesis, weasel the hunter. And Weasel, despite its role as the antagonist, was equally relatable. She was hunting for a reason - you would have to find out for yourself. At less than one hundred fifty pages, the book is thin, but the emotions are heavy.
Why is it, I reflected, that great books about animals - say, George Orwell’s Animal Farm - are never simply about animals? Hwang carved out a window at her barn, and we peek in to witness hens, ducks, and roosters part with their freedom in exchange for daily meals and a cozy shelter. This is familiar and expected: that path is predictable, secure, and safe (till the end anyway). And for the few who escape, like Sprout, they have to make difficult decisions, and still, may never fly towards the blue sky. Yet, the rebels are also the only ones who will see what lies miles beyond the barn, who will offer their children a distinct path.
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a great fable for children, and certainly too harsh of a reminder for adults.
Book Rating: 5/5