"The Crane Husband" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
I’ve long been a fan of author Kelly Barnhill because of her award-wining children’s books. “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” won the John Newbery Medal in 2017, followed by her equally engaging page-turner, “The Ogress and the Orphans”. Both are for young readers ages 9-12 and both were chosen as Book Buddy Picks.
Barnhill’s just-released offering for adults, “The Crane Husband” is a novella based on a Japanese folktale. It’s a book I didn’t want to pass up because of my admiration for Barnhill, even though that genre isn’t always my favorite.
I finished this 120-page book none the wiser for having read it. Did I like it? “Yes”—did I understand it, “No.” But I did race through it in a few hours, holding my breath at times, completely engaged because Barnhill is such a marvelous storyteller.
Though the premise of “The Crane Husband” is strange, I was hooked from the first page. “The crane came in through the front door like he owned the place,” the book begins. The book is narrated by an unnamed 15-year-old girl who looks back on the time when her mother had a torrid, abusive affair with a crane that suddenly appeared on their derelict Midwestern farm.
The mother is an artist, a gifted weaver, a widow whose husband died six years ago, which wasn’t supposed to happen. Men always lived, but women on farms like theirs fly away like birds, leaving their families.
Once the crane appears, the mother introduces him to her daughter, and the girl’s younger brother, who is six, explaining the crane is her husband and they are to call the crane “father”. The crane and the woman are immediately affectionate in front of the children, but seeds of suspicion appear in the daughter’s mind when she notices a spot of blood on her mother’s neck. The girl hears noises through the mother’s door, and realizes at times the crane transforms itself into a man then back into a crane again.
The girl is perplexed by this incredible turn of events, and though she disagrees with what her mother is doing, she takes over the care of her brother, cooking for him, with the meager food their mother provides, running the farm and making sure the boy gets to school. As she does, her mother’s body shows increasingly severe signs of the mistreatment she gets at night, sounds the children hear, but are unable to prevent. Until the girl can’t stand it any longer…
“The Crane Husband” certainly got me out of my genre-box—the book is different than anything I’ve ever read—it’s dark, addictive and laden with desperate emotion, a fantasy certain to prompt lively discussion.