The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill
Kelly Barnhill’s novella The Crane Husband is a darkly grim reimagining of and response to the Crane Wife folktale. A tough read thanks to its bleak near-future setting and dark focus on abuse and family dysfunction, and at times quite blunt in fable fashion, it’s also a rewarding read thanks to its lovely sparse language and strongly voiced narrator.
The story is set in the run-down and nearly abandoned rural Midwest, a few steps into the future where farmland is owned by a single far-away large conglomerate that raises monocultured, cloned corn via drones and “driverless tractors and remote-control harvesters.” As our narrator notes in an example of that vivid prose, “No one was a farmer anymore. No one touched the dirt anymore. No one walked through the endless rows, their fingers whispering along the dark green leaves. No one was allowed — not us, not strangers, not animals . . . the drones moved back and forth, guarding a world made only for corn.”
Barnhill opens with an unexpected and unsettling line — “The crane came in through the front door like he own the place” — and things spiral downward from there. Our narrator is an unnamed 15-year-old girl who has taken on the role of practical adult (and mother to her younger brother) in the family after the death of her father from illness since her mother is a somewhat flighty artist who in addition to spending most of her time creating massive multi-modal tapestries has a series of temporary lovers. At first, the narrator thinks the crane will fall into that same characterization, but instead he becomes a fixture in their home, filling the house with feathers and physically and emotionally abusing her mother, who becomes more and more obsessed with her current project (driven by the crane) to the point of neglecting her own health and her children’s well-being. When a social worker enters the picture and the threat arises of losing her little brother, the narrator has to decide how far she is willing to go to protect those she loves.
The prose, as noted, is a major strength in the novella, with a good sense of rhythm an language and a nice sense of the sharp details, such as the hat worn by the crane at a “jaunty angle” or the way its wearing her father’s old shoes when they first meet it. The narrator herself is impossible not to empathize with — fierce, loving, protective, smart, resourceful, and despite all that trapped in a nightmare she can’t escape while she does all she can to hold her family together even as she bears witness to its slow dissolution. The themes, meanwhile, are complex, exploring a range of issues such as the obligations one has to self, to art, to family; the role, impact, and commodification of art; social constraints on women, self-sacrifice — its cost, rewards, and limits; the dehumanizing effect of technology.
The story reads like a fable, and therefore may evoke different responses. Personally, I prefer my writing to be a bit less on the nose and so the narrative was at times too bluntly, too overt in its conveyance of idea and theme, whether that came through dialogue or dream sequences, or the like. And the narrator’s epiphany about the crane in their house came a bit implausibly late for me. But outside of those complaints, The Crane Husband is a movingly dark and vividly written fable for contemporary times.