The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill

The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill fantasy and science fiction book reviewsKelly 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.

Published in February 2023. A fifteen-year-old teenager is the backbone of her small Midwestern family, budgeting the household finances and raising her younger brother while her mom, a talented artist, weaves beautiful tapestries. For six years, it’s been just the three of them—her mom has brought home guests at times, but none have ever stayed. Yet when her mom brings home a six-foot tall crane with a menacing air, the girl is powerless to prevent her mom letting the intruder into her heart, and her children’s lives. Utterly enchanted and numb to his sharp edges, her mom abandons the world around her to weave the masterpiece the crane demands. In this stunning contemporary retelling of “The Crane Wife” by the Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, one fiercely pragmatic teen forced to grow up faster than was fair will do whatever it takes to protect her family—and change the story


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.