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Summary and book reviews of Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth

Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth X
Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth
  • Critics' Opinion:

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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2020, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

An unforgettably exuberant and potent novel by a writer at the height of her powers.

Two auditors for the U.S. egg industry go rogue and conceive a plot to steal a million chickens in the middle of the night―an entire egg farm's worth of animals. Janey and Cleveland―a spirited former runaway and the officious head of audits―assemble a precarious, quarrelsome team and descend on the farm on a dark spring evening. A series of catastrophes ensues.

Deb Olin Unferth's wildly inventive novel is a heist story of a very unusual sort. Swirling with a rich array of voices, Barn 8 takes readers into the minds of these renegades: a farmer's daughter, a former director of undercover investigations, hundreds of activists, a forest ranger who suddenly comes upon forty thousand hens, and a security guard who is left on an empty farm for years. There are glimpses twenty thousand years into the future to see what chickens might evolve into on our contaminated planet. We hear what hens think happens when they die. In the end the cracked hearts of these indelible characters, their earnest efforts to heal themselves, and their radical actions will lead them to ruin or revelation.

Funny, whimsical, philosophical, and heartbreaking, Barn 8 ultimately asks: What constitutes meaningful action in a world so in need of change? Unferth comes at this question with striking ingenuity, razor-sharp wit, and ferocious passion. Barn 8 is a rare comic-political drama, a tour de force for our time.

Excerpt
Barn 8

A nest. Built of 14-gauge galvanized wire mesh, twenty-five thousand water nipples, a moss of dander and feed. Six miles of feed trough runs down rows, up columns. Staggered tiers rise ten feet high into the shape of the letter A, the universal symbol for mountain. Wooden rafters, plywood walkways. Darkness. Sudden light. Three hundred thousand prehistoric eyes blinking. The entire apparatus ticking and whirring and clanking like a doomsday machine. Above it the purr, coo, and song of a hundred and fifty thousand birds at dawn.

1

The moment Janey stepped off the bus she suspected her error. Until then (through the long hours of the ride, pulling through town after town, the day dimming, the door sighing open and shut, the darkening, then the darkness, her head lobbing back and forth in a half sleep, stepping down to change buses in Chicago, waiting on the cement with her duffel, pulling out again into the dark, then the sunrise, the plaid day flipping by, her ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

While the characters of Barn 8 are exceedingly compelling, the novel is fundamentally an ode to the humble chicken and a critique of factory farming wrapped up in a darkly comical heist plot. The subject of animal rights is addressed with urgency and passion, but the book succeeds because of Deb Olin Unferth's light touch...continued

Full Review Members Only (733 words).

(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

New York Times
The thorough research Unferth must have done on the historical, cultural and agricultural aspects of hens and roosters is woven naturally throughout the text, and many of these characters are motivated to take action for the sake of these animals’ rights. Barn 8 is a beautiful, urgent, politically charged book with a huge heart, and while the plot is sometimes madcap, well, so is love.

Electric Literature
Framed inside the world of commercial chicken farming (which is a whole thing in itself, both in real life and in the book), the razor-sharp prose and surprisingly heartfelt insight move this book right along into unexpected places. Barn 8 is so weird in the best way, hilarious even as it probes deep into fault lines of capitalist society, politics, and revolution.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Where Unferth’s sympathies lie is obvious, though she is never sanctimonious and even offers up an argument for cheap factory farming...Author of five other novels, Unferth excels at the grim details of barn life. But she’s also a terrific comic writer, and her forays into chicken history and psychology are delightful.

Los Angeles Times
At its heart, Barn 8 is a rollicking American parable, an anarchic David-and-Goliath story for a moment when the technocratic systems to which we’ve lashed ourselves — Amazon, Apple, the cloud, the healthcare industry — seem too large to topple and too tangled up with our lives to hope for extrication...What does it matter when there are still billions more chickens, forever laying eggs for the forever-open mouths of 327 million forever-hungry Americans? The answer, according to Unferth, is that even if it fails, you have to keep trying.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
While this kind of politically charged rhetoric could risk coming off as pedantic, Unferth's writing never feels patronizing—more than anything, it's galvanizing, especially these days when 'activism [is] less revolution, more capitalism with a conscience.' If this novel isn't a movement, it has enough heart to start one.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Unferth recalls Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang with a dose of vegan-minded quirk. This entertaining, satisfying genre turn shows off Unferth's range, and readers will be delighted by the characters' earnest crusade.

Booklist (starred review)
Unferth sharply illuminates the contrariness of human nature, celebrates the evolutionary marvels of chickens, and exposes the horrors of the egg industry...[A] vividly provoking and revelatory work of ecofiction spiked with mordant humor and powered by love.

Author Blurb Dana Spiotta
Barn 8 is a novel like no other: An urgent moral fantasia, a post-human parable, a tender portrait of animal dignity and genius.

Author Blurb Jenny Offill
Deb Unferth's hilarious, off-kilter genius is on dazzling display in this novel. Come for the brilliant insights about our faltering civilization. Stay for the revolutionaries and the chickens. You are really really going to love these chickens ...

Author Blurb Zachary Lazar
Like Flannery O'Connor, Deb Olin Unferth does things entirely her own way, and that way is impossible to describe...This very funny and absurd novel is also as serious as the world.

Author Blurb R.O. Kwon
I leap to read anything Deb Olin Unferth writes, and her latest book, Barn 8, is further proof of her singular talent, her gigantic heart. While Unferth's characters try to save hens, her miracle of a novel might, in turn, save you.

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Beyond the Book

Are Chickens Smart?

Brown hen in chicken yard Barn 8 recounts the formulation and execution of a plan to rescue (or, depending on your viewpoint, steal) nearly one million hens from an egg farm. Interspersed with the plot are ruminations on the lives, personalities, evolution and intelligence of these animals that the author obviously regards highly. So, how smart are chickens?

A surprising number of studies have been conducted on this subject. According to an experiment done by researchers at the University of Padova in Italy, young chicks can understand numerical values well enough to conduct a semblance of basic arithmetic. Perhaps you've heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, in which children were given the option to have one marshmallow immediately or delay ...

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