The Crane Wife (Tsuru Nyōbō) is a Japanese folk tale about a crane who falls in love with a man who saves her and disguises herself as a woman to marry him, plucking out her feathers each night to weave into silk brocade for her husband to sell and becoming increasingly more ill in the process. It’s a story about sacrifice, about a wild thing shaping herself into an unfamiliar shape and destroying herself for the man she loves. The Crane Wife is a story about sacrifice, about the loss of self for the sake of others, and, while Newbery Medal-winning author Kelly Barnhill’s The Crane Husband is about that, it’s also about an invading thing, the encroaching of alien forces into the life of a young girl.
Inspired by the folk tale, The Crane Husband follows an unnamed 15-year-old girl as her mother brings a crane home one night and grows increasingly distant, all but ignoring her children in favour of spending her time with the crane, who she tells her children to call “Father.” As her mother begins to change, the girl takes on more and more of the already crushing responsibilities she’s been taking on since she was a child, while her mother draws further back and begins to slack on what little she did before, all the time telling her daughter about how “mothers fly away like migrating birds.” It’s not the first time Barnhill has incorporated themes of women transforming into other beings to escape their circumstances into her work; she did it in 2022’s When Women Were Dragons, an excellent novel set in an alternate history in which many wives and mothers transformed into dragons in 1955.
The Crane Husband is a dark story, but it’s one that will resonate with many, it certainly has with me. I found it an irresistible read, impossible to put down. So much so that I read it in a single day (something I can’t remember doing since I would borrow the Diary of Wimpy Kid books in elementary school and finish them by the time I got home.) Barnhill’s prose are sparse but never boring, and suited perfectly to the story. It reminds me of the farmers I grew up with, their no-nonsense way of speaking, the way they made everything so clear because there was little time for flowery language or misunderstanding in their line of work. We get glimpses of the world around the narrator; at times both familiar and foreign with its midwestern farmland and its surveillance drones owned by the corporation that bought up all the fields, and glimpses are all that the narrator is able to give us as she is forced into tunnel vision to ensure her and her family’s survival in the face of parental neglect, an abusive interloper, financial instability, and all those bring with them.
The themes in the story are clear, buried under a layer of metaphor, yes, but the layer is so thin that it’s easy to understand what Barnhill is trying to say and do. A mother’s abusive boyfriend becomes a human-sized crane, and a woman’s exploitation by her partner is mirrored by the exploitation of the surrounding land at the hands of a faceless conglomerate. The conglomerate was one of the most interesting aspects of the story to me, truth be told. I live in farm country, and I know what the real conglomerates do, both to the people and the land; and I also know what the environmental toll of vast stretches of fields with nothing but corn as far as the eyes can see is.
The Crane Husband is a dark story, appropriate for high school students and older (although, I’ll never not admit that oftentimes age guidelines for books should be treated as merely that, a guideline. We do, after all, come to these things with our own very different levels of maturity, and I will never begrudge someone for reading something ever so slightly out of their age range or comfort zone.) It’s not a nice story per se, but it is beautiful in it’s sparseness, and the exact kind of book that children deserve to have in their life; one that will challenge them, that will make them think about themselves and the world around them and perhaps, one that will change them as the mother herself is changed in the story. Often when reading books like this I do so while thinking “would this be a good book to recommend my aunt keep in her classroom for her students to read?” and with The Crane Husband, the resounding answer was yes.