The Crane Husband
By: Kelly Barnhill
Published: February 28, 2023
Genre: Folklore, Fantasy, Magical Realism, Fairy Tale Retelling
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I dreamed of my mother standing in the endless fields beyond our yard, where no one was allowed to go, wings erupting from her bloody back, feathers piercing and rustling their way out of her skin, her beaking mouth open in a scream at first, then a sigh, then a bright keen as she lifted skyward and flew away, (3).
Folktales continue their purpose of narrating “cautionary tales.” For millennia, these stories have been formed, presented, reiterated, altered, and presented again to audiences. Creativity and technology have kept these tales active in posterity mostly thanks to them being ubiquitous. The audience has gotten used to these tales ending with, “And, they lived happily ever after”; but, there are some “recent” folktale retellings which have returned to their “darker” origins. As “dark” as these retellings are, they reimplement their purpose as well: to serve as a warning to the (current/present day) audience. The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill is the retelling of the Japanese folktale, “The Crane Wife,” which is a cautionary tale about lost love with a setting in the modern Midwestern United States.
The protagonist is a 15-year-old (no name) girl. She lives on a struggling farm with her mother and her 6-year-old brother, Michael, in a small town in the Midwestern U.S. The children’s father passed away when Michael was a baby, and as far as the protagonist knows, life has declined for the family since then. The mother is an artist whose woven tapestries sell enough to keep the family from eviction; however, it is the protagonist who is doing everything behind the scenes: paying the bills, buying groceries, caring for her younger brother, feeding the farm animals, etc. This has caused the protagonist to miss several days of school at a time, which has alerted school staff and state authorities to the dilemma. One day, an unknown man arrives at the family farm, and the mother is smitten with him almost instantly, which confuses and alarms both children. The longer the man stays at the farm, the longer the mother locks herself away in the barn, with the number of feathers are left throughout the house increasing. Both the protagonist and Michael want the man gone so they can return to their way of life; but, Michael is too young to understand the dire situation their family is in. This means that the protagonist—a 15-year-old girl—must decide which course of action is best for her family.
The plot in this story is a sad, yet a familiar one many of us have heard of—and few have experienced firsthand. The patriarch dies, the widow withdraws from society, and the children are left to fend for themselves. Then one day, a stranger arrives, and the mother gives him all of her attention to the point where she neglects her family even more. Unfortunately, by this point, the authorities have been informed which leads to the worse thing happening about to happen. Amongst family trauma, neglect, responsibility, fear, and crane feathers, the protagonist takes matters into her hands, with dire yet predictable consequences. There is a subplot in this story, and it revolves around the mother of the protagonist and Michael. As the story continues, it becomes obvious to the audience who the man is and why the mother is so happy to see him. At the same time, the protagonist begins to unravel the “secret” regarding her family, particularly the females. She realizes what this “secret” and the man means to do to her family, but it seems the protagonist is acting out of fear of what’s inevitable to her mother and to herself in the future. The subplot is essential to the plot because the former explains the “connection” to the latter. The subplot is necessary for the plot, but it does not become a second one.
The narrative is presented from the point-of-view of the protagonist in the past tense. The unnamed female protagonist is recounting what happened to her remaining family when she was a teenager. Given the actions, the circumstances, the outcome, and the “documentation” (i.e. photos, police reports, newspaper articles, etc.,) the audience is left to believe that the narrative is objective and the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness of what happened in the past is truthful, which makes her a reliable narrator. The narrative can be followed easily.
The style Kelly Barnhill uses for The Crane Husband continues the fantasy subgenre of fairy tale retellings and new fairy tales. The author is known and popular due to her (award winning) children’s books, and she presents those talents for an adult audience. Fairy tales are a subgenre of folktales which serve as cautionary tales for the audience. Please know these tales were for adults before they were collected, altered, and presented as children’s stories. This “new” retelling takes an older variant of a known folktale, changed the setting and the conflicts to something more familiar and the author has given her audience a “new” cautionary tale (for adults), in which both sides of the conflict are understandable and relatable. The mood in this reimagined folktale is expiration. Everything mentioned in the story is about to cease in existence. The farm is failing, the family’s way of life is gone, the children’s innocence is gone, and the mother wants all of it to end for her own needs. The tone in this narrative is apprehension. From the moment the strange man arrived, everything and everyone else was on “high alert.” Deep down, they all knew that the man’s arrival was the beginning of the end for the life they knew.
So far, the appeal for The Crane Husband have been positive with strong positive reviews and ratings on Amazon and on Goodreads. This book is the last of 3 the author released within 1 calendar year. One of the other 2 books was Kelly Barnhill’s adult debut book—When Women Were Dragons. This novella hits the same points about family and motherhood as in her previous books both for adults and for children. Even if you haven’t read anything by this author, then I highly recommend you start with this book; you won’t regret it. This book fits in the fantasy subgenre of reimagined folktales and fairy tale retellings. Fans of The Witch and the Tsar, Kaikeyi, Nettle & Bone, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride, The Book Eaters, The Book of Gothel, and Daughter of the Moon Goddess will enjoy this book the most.
The Crane Husband is the cautionary tale and reimagined folktale we didn’t know we needed. Kelly Barnhill demonstrates she can present a poignant story of any length with enough emotional impact to leave her audience grieving for ALL of the victims in the book. This story is NOT what you’re expecting it to be, but it is an excellent one presented with the right length.
My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!