“Please, never, ever, call me a battery hen. . . . I am in a battery cage, and I do live on a battery farm. But I am not, repeat not a battery hen. A hen in a battery cage is not a battery hen. Which is to say, she is not some kind of newly-invented species. . . . I, Minny, am a proud descendant of the Red Jungle Fowl.”
Imagine moving from the city to the country cottage of your dreams only to discover a battery hen business nearby. This is what happens to 12-year-old Paula Brown and her parents in Clare Druce’s riveting true-to-life gothic tale for young people of all ages, Minny’s Dream. Drawing upon the archetypal theme of a “fall” from innocence into hell, Druce tells what happens when the curious and adventurous Paula takes a walk one day from Orchard Cottage to Folly Farm to buy some eggs for the family breakfast. Approaching the farm, she wonders why there are no animals about the place – no chickens, cows, or pigs – just a huge Alsatian dog “crouching beside a gloomy kennel.”
What Paula finds instead are ten “bleak rows of sheds” emanating “a musty, sickly sort of smell, unlike anything she knew.” Instead of a “jolly farmer,” out from one of the sheds comes snarling Mr. Dredge, who tells her “you’re not wanted here.” But Paula asks questions. And Mr. Dredge, pleased by her naïve interest, soon boasts that he has a quarter of a million hens inside the ten sheds, “twenty-five thousand per shed.” Do the hens like it in there? “Like it? Course they like it.”
Paula talks Mr. Dredge into letting her accompany him into Shed Ten. The “biosecurity” boot-bath at the entrance is just like what undercover investigators describe: a “shallow tank of murky liquid” with a “greasy film” that “reeked of strong disinfectant.” In they go.
Paula knew she would never forget the moment when she first saw the rows of cages, stacked from floor to ceiling, five tiers high. And she knew she’d never forget the first time she heard the sound of twenty-five thousand hens, all together in one building. It took a few seconds for her eyes to accustom themselves to the gloom, and to realize that the ghostly impression was due to the myriads of cobwebs that hung from the roof girders, and festooned various iron struts and items of machinery. Dusty light bulbs glowed dully the length of the aisle down which Mr. Dredge was leading the way.
As if one shock weren’t enough, suddenly from the top tier of cages, a particularly imploring look is followed by an imploring voice: “only return, and I’ll fill you in on every single miserable, rotten, cruel aspect of this dismal place! You see,” the voice says, “you can get out of here, but for us, it’s a life sentence.”
Paula: “Who are you?”
Voice: “I’m Minny, and I’ve been standing or crouching down on this wire floor for the best part of a year. Yes, I’m Minny, a proud descendant of the Red Jungle Fowl. Say you’ll come back. You see, you’re our only hope.”
Paula, already about to faint from the cobwebs, ammonia fumes, and now the mysterious “Minny” speaking to her through the din of machinery and hens, seeing Mr. Dredge “advancing towards her through the gloom,” quickly memorizes Minny’s position amongst the cages. I’ll be back, Minny,” Paula calls up in a whisper, “you can depend on me.”
From this point, Paula takes up a covert life while taking care to appear “normal.” She does “secret” library research to learn more about the Red Jungle Fowl. She visits Minny and learns all about Minny’s present life, her “ancestral memories,” and how those memories produce Minny’s dreams, at night as she sleeps in her wire cage, of the future she longs for – “Busy, yet contented.” But, Minny tells Paula wistfully, “The terrible thing about dreaming beautiful dreams is that you have to wake up, and face another day.”
Meanwhile, time, which drags on forever for Minny, Goldie, Crosspatch, and the other inmates in the ten sheds, is also flying. As “spent” hens, the Shed Ten hens are about to be sent to slaughter, for, Mr. Dredge tells Paula: “Them hens” are “rubbish.” Paula, “finding it hard to think about anything except the catchers arriving in the dead of night, to yank Minny out of her cage by her poor weak legs,” is faced with a decision: she “had never gone against her parents’ wishes in anything really important. She’d never crossed a forbidden road, or stolen sweets from the corner shop near the flat, like some children did. But here she was, planning to steal three hens! No, not steal, she reminded herself. . . . Perhaps she would be put away, to wherever they put children instead of prison. Perhaps. . . .“
Rather than spoil the ending for you, I’ll leave it at this: the climax of Minny’s Dream is sheer suspense and brings the wrath of Paula’s law-abiding parents down on her. Will they relent? While you are trying to imagine how the story ends, order Minny’s Dream for that young person (or persons) you know whose life, and with it the lives of many chickens, this book will powerfully influence – Hen’s honor!
“’Minny, I’ll have to go,’ Paula hissed [she hears Mr. Dredge coming!]. ‘But I promise I’ll be back.’ ’Hen’s honour?’ pleaded Minny, in a low, urgent voice. ‘Hen’s honour,’ breathed Paula, ‘see you, Minny.’”
Clare Druce, the author of Minny’s Dream, is the cofounder of UK-based Chickens’ Lib, the first organization in the world to specialize in exposing the suffering of egg-laying hens,
turkeys, and baby “broiler” chickens in industrial agriculture, and to advocate for “poultry” rights. Clare and Chickens’ Lib
were key factors in my decision to found United Poultry Concerns in 1990, and Clare was, and continues to be, my mentor. Clare’s new book
Chickens’ Lib: The Story of a Campaign
is a compelling, deeply moving, often darkly humorous account of Chickens’ Lib’s 40-year fight for chickens and turkeys against the Powers That
Be, showing what a small group of totally dedicated activists can accomplish.
For my 2014 Review please see
Chickens’ Lib: The Story of a Campaign.
– Karen Davis, President, United Poultry Concerns