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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry


"Sometimes I think of the unbroken line of women, all of the mothers, that ends finally with me—the whole of them wielding forms and purses and shaking their heads in disappointment."

In some ways, Jackie Polzin's debut Brood feels like a very obvious little episodic novel: if a woman miscarries and fails to be able to again conceive, then chooses to try (and often struggle) to take good care of a small brood of chickens, it's not hard to see the chickens as surrogate children and the narrator as an altered sort of caregiver. The novel is indeed in many ways simple and obvious but no less unique and effective for it. Though the plot points of Brood feel fairly small and slow (it takes the slow burn of a year for a possible work-related relocation to play out), the core of the book is about the narrator's ongoing effort to keep four chickens alive against various challenges (heat, cold, foxes, racoons, overzealous neighbors... the list goes on), while dealing with the notion (always underlying, rarely addressed directly) that she is the end of her line, that her sense that she would be a good mother means little if it's simply not to be.

Brood's unnamed narrator lives in Camden (Minnesota, not Maine) with her husband, Percy. The couple shares a quite close life, though the narrator has a sort of humorous regard for much of what her spouse says and does, which adds levity to a novel that has its foundations in loss and grief. She begins one brief section: "'The strangest thing happened last night,' Percy said. I doubted it. We had slept side by side. The odds of the strangest thing happening without affecting me in any way seemed slim." These moments of humor are balanced out by the underlying sadness of loss that never really flies from consciousness. When Percy goes on from his comment to tell about the ghostly woman who visited him in his dreams, the narrator reacts emotionally, sharing "'Ghost stories always cause my eyes to water.'" These are the words of a mother whose unborn child will always haunt her.

At the start of the novel, it seems like we might be in for more of a lesson in the whys and wherefore of backyard chickens and homesteading, as Polzin writes a scene wherein the narrator's best friend (and recent mother) Helen visits and cannot conceive of why the chicken's fresh eggs are warm to the touch. "An egg that derives its warmth from existence outside 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," the narrator comments, engaging briefly with the notion that most of us are so disconnected from the sources of what we find on the supermarket shelves that we fail to even understand the directness of chicken to egg. Far more than a didactic novel, though, Brood is a personal one. Polzin has shared that the novel has strong roots in her own experiences, and it does feel a bit like a memoir more than fiction at times. Perhaps it is a book about chickens. We certainly learn quite a bit about them. But more than anything, it feels like a book about waiting and about trying to continue to live, whether you're a chicken with a raccoon lurking in the coop or a woman whose recent life has been peppered by pain and disappointment. It's a novel of funny but painful anxieties, as when one-time neighbors return to visit, and the narrator realizes, "I would have to make a welcoming treat, which was not much trouble but would weigh on my mind to an extent that made up for it." For some of us, these kinds of little foibles mirror own ridiculous preoccupations, yet another of Brood's underlying successes.

Can chickens fill the holes left by miscarriage and infertility? Are the returns of such care and devotion, which Polzin shares she showered on her own chickens at age 30 in the midst of suffering a miscarriage, remotely comparable to those showered on a baby daughter? Is there hope in this little gem of a book? Request Polzin's Brood and see what you think!

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