April 2, 2018KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

Chickens, 2019,” by Claire Boyles, appears in the Mar/Apr 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What will survive the human race? Do you believe there’s one creature, or one species of plant, that is here to stay?

In Claire Boyles’s new story, the answer is simple: hens. Roosters are dumb and self-centered, but a hen know when to hide from the rain, how to dodge predators, when to brood and convince others to leave her alone.

There are many ways to begin a story, but not as many as you’d think begin with the dangerous work of hiding chickens from the government.

Why? It’s simple: In the world of Boyles’s story, bird flu has become rampant and water is scarce. Keeping an outdoor, unregulated chicken flock is now a Class A felony, and the Extension Service, backed by the National Guard, has taken control of the rural water supply. Enter Grace, a longtime farmer with an illegal flock and fresh resentment of how the government grabbed the water on land that goes back to her great-great grandfather.

As the title suggests, this dystopian future isn’t far off. Like Anna Kavan’s Ice or Edan Lepucki’s California, “Chickens, 2019” imagines a future where our environment has radically changed. The protagonist doesn’t bother too much with the new laws of the Anthropocene: “The government is the only invasive weed I worry about these days.” Grace is focused on her flock.

“Hiding these chickens is real founding fathers shit. Straight justified civil disobedience,” she says; she is beginning to breed and sell the birds illegally. There’s real pride here, in the way she has raised the girls and how well they’re doing in secret. She believes they’ll all outlive birds raised in captivity “by a thousand years.”

Grace also happens to have an ex-lover who takes his government job seriously—he helped out when the authorities seized Grace’s water, and he intends to shut down her chicken operation. His betrayal is a direct threat to the birds she loves so much and to the land she’s inherited and worked all her life. It would be easy to structure a story around this first betrayal, but Boyles cleverly ups the stakes by introducing us to Grace’s new lover.

Grace misses Smith, her high school sweetheart, and makes an effort to devote herself to Jerry, a kind-hearted stoner who is admittedly a little paranoid. When the two men confront each other over a stray rooster, Jerry assumes the National Guard is there with Smith. The two shoot each other (and the rooster). Will Grace call the authorities? If she saves one man, whom will she save first? It seems for a moment that Grace and the hens could go on with their lives with all of the men gone. But love gets the best of Grace: Boyles deftly moves from the lead-up to the confrontation to Grace’s decision, in a moment of emergency, about who and what she loves most.

Along the way, Boyles gives us moments of beauty and reverence. Grace remembers “the way the moon gave a sheen to the vinyl upholstery” in Smith’s car on their prom night. When Fran, the piano teacher, lets out a sarcastic “ha,” “it was musical, like someone hit the middle C.” Describing Grace’s favorite chicken, Montana:

Montana has those same peaks and valleys [as the Rocky Mountain range] etched right on her back, like God held her up and traced the pattern to get it exactly right. Sometimes I wonder whether God repeated beauty like that everywhere on purpose, like maybe he hoped humans would learn to see and reflect it, to find a way to copy it in the things we make ourselves.

In her description, the author elevates a single hen into something sacred. Grace doesn’t think much of Jerry’s intelligence or the federal government, but she admires her birds’ markings and their instincts. The highest nobility she establishes in this story is the will to survive. Boyles asks us: When everything in the world is falling apart, who and what do we decide to protect? And just how far should a woman go for her chickens?