Jackie Polzin’s Brood is a powerful debut novel that sets Polzin up as a strong new literary voice and one to watch. The unnamed narrator has thrown herself into taking care of chickens in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy, and while the entire novel is framed around the chickens’ well-being, it is the heartbreaking, small snippets around her miscarriage and its aftermath that are brutally poignant. An honest take on internalized versus externalized pain, Brood is a beautiful novel with real staying power.
“Full of nuance and humor and strangeness…[Polzin] writes beautifully about everything.” —The New York Times
Over the course of a single year, our nameless narrator heroically tries to keep her small brood of four chickens alive despite the seemingly endless challenges that caring for another creature entails. From the forty-below nights of a brutal Minnesota winter to a sweltering summer which brings a surprise tornado, she battles predators, bad luck, and the uncertainty of a future that may not look anything like the one she always imagined.
Intimate and startlingly original, this slender novel is filled with wisdom, sorrow and joy. As the year unfolds, we come to know the small band of loved ones who comprise the narrator's circumscribed life at this moment. Her mother, a flinty former home-ec teacher who may have to take over the chickens; her best friend, a real estate agent with a burgeoning family of her own; and her husband whose own coping mechanisms for dealing with the miscarriage that haunts his wife are more than a little unfathomable to her.
A stunning and brilliantly insightful meditation on life and longing that will stand beside such modern classics as H is for Hawk and Gilead, Brood rewards its readers with the richness of reflection and unrelenting hope.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
n our first week of owning chickens, four years ago, Helen stopped by to see the quaintness of the operation with her own eyes. I show the coop to any visitor who expresses interest in the chickens. Helen is an exception. She is my friend and thus shows an interest in my life. She does not otherwise care about the chickens.
Her visit took place in the brief interval before the grime of chickens had been established. The paint was fresh, the mice had not yet located the stockpile of various grains, and our garden had begun to sprout fairy greens and delicate purple stems of a plant whose identity I never confirmed.
Helen’s questions were predictable, but my limited knowledge of chickens did not include the predictable questions or the answers to them.
“Do the chickens know their names?” she had asked. The chickens have never answered to a particular name but answer to any upbeat tone, names included, hoping for whatever treat may accompany the sound.
“Do the chickens like to be pet?” She took a step back to indicate the question was not a request. “Are they upset when you take away their eggs?”
I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions.
“Has a chicken ever laid an egg in your hand?” she asked.
“No,” I said. And still, a chicken has never laid an egg in my hand.
I had not yet collected the eggs from early morning. Two brown eggs lay in a bowl of spun straw, one fair like milk tea, the other dark and a bit orange. At the time I did not know which chickens laid which eggs.
“Here.” I placed the fair egg, which was also the smaller of the two, in Helen’s palm. Her fingers did not soften to the shape.
“What should I do?” she asked.
“Cook it, eat it,” I said.
“I mean now. What should I do now?” She did not hold the egg, but allowed the egg to rest on her flat hand, was only tolerating the egg for, I suppose, my benefit. The egg was not especially clean. The cleaner an egg looks, the more likely a visitor will accept the egg with grace and hold it in a manner befitting an egg, a force equal but opposite to the weight of the egg applied by a cupped hand, creating perfect balance and suspension in midair.
“Is it cooked?” she asked. “It’s warm.” She had seen me retrieve the egg from the straw, the straw worried down and out and up at the sides in the precise counter-shape of a nesting chicken, a bed of straw so primitive as to predate fire, and yet she wondered out loud.
“It’s fresh,” I said. “It’s warm because it’s fresh.”
“Has an egg ever hatched in your hand?”
Everyone wonders if an egg, warm from a chicken, will hatch into a chick. The warmth of the egg prompts the retrieval of this otherwise remote idea. Among other triumphs of our generation, we have nearly extinguished the idea of an egg as a source of life. The confusion does not arise from the fact that people are no longer eating eggs or even that people are no longer cooking eggs. On the contrary, eggs are being eaten at a furious rate, and while the most adventurous preparations of eggs are crafted at the hands of professionals, in home kitchens the world over eggs are being prepared in more adventurous forms than ever before. The problem is not that eggs are bad for us or that eggs will make us fat. Rather, eggs are not as bad for us as we thought they were and eggs will not make us fatter than we already are. The problem is that people do not see the connection between an egg placed in their hand, fresh from a chicken, and the egg bought in the store. An egg that derives its warmth from existence inside the body of a chicken is far too fantastic to proceed as usual. If a fresh egg is placed straight into a carton versus an open palm, the confusion over what to do with an egg ceases to exist.
Weeks after Helen’s first visit to the chickens, she returned with her boyfriend. He was a new boyfriend (and soon enough an ex-boyfriend) and she was trying to impress him. She had deemed her previous visit with the chickens sufficiently novel and called to warn me.
“I’m bringing Jack,” she said. “Do you still have the half bottle of gin from last summer?”
“Of course,” I said. “Percy doesn’t drink gin and I’m trying to hate the same things as him.” This last part was to make Helen laugh, but she only hummed, which meant she was snacking, most likely on one of the soft-baked cookies she’s so fond of, which she buys in a paper sleeve and stores in the vegetable drawer behind a bag of carrots. The snacking, and therefore the humming, meant she was alone.
“Oh, good. Place it in the freezer, and could you do me a favor? Offer the gin early on.”
Helen wanted and expected the whole experience to play out in the same fashion as her previous visit. She did not say it but I knew. Helen is a realtor, and realtors of all people should understand the disappointment of a second viewing. A realtor never makes a sale on a second look. If the first merits a second, the second requires a third. From surprise to disappointment to qualified relief. Helen’s visit would be a disappointment.
I could not reproduce or even approximate the experience. The chickens had stopped laying. The two brown eggs had been their last. If Helen had not called to suggest gin, I might have suggested it myself. The chickens would easily entertain from behind the curtain of midday gin. In the event I was wrong about the entertainment value of chickens or the power of gin, Percy suggested I give them eggs.
“There hasn’t been an egg in two weeks.”
Percy walked to the refrigerator and returned with a carton full of extra-large white eggs. “Give them these.”
“No chicken of ours lays white eggs,” I said. “And these eggs are cold.”
“Helen won’t notice and she wouldn’t care. She’d prefer white,” he said, which was likely true, though I would not give him the satisfaction of saying so. Percy took a small pot from beneath the stove, filled it with water, and set the pot to boil. I had forgotten to mention I was also morally opposed to his suggestion.
By the time Helen’s leased BMW turned into the back alley, three eggs sat steaming in a shadowed corner of the nest box.
“How do I grow a chicken from this egg?” Jack asked, the egg in his hand hot and gleaming. Helen admires confidence, falls often for the type, and I could see it was a flaw in Jack, preventing him from asking even such basic questions as “Why does the egg burn my hand?”