"The problem had begun for him when he was about four and he had asked Ima where the chicken on his plate came from." His mother's answer--that it came from the live chickens in the barn--marks the beginning of a deep personal resistance movement for Ari, a nine year-old boy who lives in the Negev Highlands in Israel with his mother and father. Both parents are active conservationists who farm organically and work to protect the environment and wildlife, while showing no concern about the animals they eat. Ari wonders why his parents attend protest demonstrations to save the earth, yet never protest the cruel chicken house or the treatment of geese to make pate de foie gras. "His parents, he noticed, thought about many things, but not about these things."
Ari considers the different kinds of birds he knows. The chickens kept for meat and eggs smell bad, can't move, make "low moaning sounds," and stare through their cages with "gloomy eyes." In contrast, his beloved hen, Tk Tk, is clean, soft, independent, and loving. She often sits on the porch step with Ari making sweet sounds that "came from deep inside her breast, deep under her feathers, deep inside a well of animal happiness."
Finally, there are the millions of migratory birds--storks, pelicans, eagles, kestrels--whose ancient route across the Negev is threatened by the government's plan to build a radio station in the Arad Valley. These are the "birds in the air that people admired and wanted to protect." Ari wonders "why his parents felt so strongly about the birds of the air, and did not seem to care at all about the chickens in the cages."
Their answers are evasive and Ari suffers a "secret misery" which keeps him from being happy. His pain becomes a family matter when he starts washing his meat with water at the table before eating it, a compulsion which he scarcely understands, yet persists in doing even when his visiting Grandma Ellie from New York baits, badgers and belittles him about his "disgusting habit," and does everything she can to make him feel even worse than he already does about hurting his parents and being a weakling if he doesn't eat meat.
This story is about a boy's quest for moral independence, which his parents have encouraged without dreaming where their teachings might lead. Ari finds unexpected support from them, however, and even from his "henpecked" grandfather, but the most astonishing revelation is that his teacher, Ms. Greenblatt, is a vegetarian and that her brother Yossi, the famous soccer player, is a vegetarian! Ms. Greenblatt washes away Ari's fears so that he will no longer have to wash the blood out of his food and be defensive when taunted by his classmate, Yonatan, who thinks being big and being strong are the same.
When Ari tells Ms. Greenblatt that he informed his mother he did not want to eat meat (and his mother survived!), she praises him, "Good. So now you own your own stomach." This idea becomes for Ari "his personal truth."
Kalechofsky dedicated this book to her son, Hal, "Whose parents did not understand," and "to other parents who might also miss the clues." Ari's practice of washing his meat is based on her own son's childhood habit. Not until years later did she learn that her son always hated meat. Now a vegetarian herself, Kalechofsky sees washing the meat as a "purification ritual" in which one tries to wash every sign of blood from the meat so as not to feel there had ever been any life in it.
For Ari, it is dreadful to eat something that had once been a living, "frightened creature." His morality is rooted in his keen perceptions whereby he distinguishes between "the birds who were free and the birds who were not free."
He noticed that the birds who were free were always beautiful, their feathers were soft and silky and brilliant with color, their wings opened like fans as they mounted the air with confidence and song. He loved to watch the birds in the air. Their migration patterns were like paintings in the sky, moving pictures against the blue air as the birds jockied for their different places and lined up behind their leader, predetermined by the forces of sun and wind and light to make this journey. The journey was part of their being. A cage was a terrible thing.
This intelligently adventurous children's book is for ages 7-1O, but it is really a book for all ages, especially our own.
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