Epeolatry Book Review: The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill


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Title: The Crane Husband
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tordotcom Publishing
Release Date: 28th February, 2023

Synopsis: “Mothers fly away like migrating birds. This is why farmers have daughters.”

A fifteen-year-old teenager is the backbone of her small Midwestern family, budgeting the household finances and raising her younger brother while her mom, a talented artist, weaves beautiful tapestries. For six years, it’s been just the three of them―her mom has brought home guests at times, but none have ever stayed.

Yet when her mom brings home a six-foot tall crane with a menacing air, the girl is powerless to prevent her mom letting the intruder into her heart, and her children’s lives. Utterly enchanted and numb to his sharp edges, her mom abandons the world around her to weave the masterpiece the crane demands.

In this stunning contemporary retelling of “The Crane Wife” by the Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, one fiercely pragmatic teen forced to grow up faster than was fair will do whatever it takes to protect her family―and change the story.

“The Crane Wife” is a Japanese folktale with many variations, but one of the most common versions is about a poor man who finds an injured crane and nurses her back to health. The crane leaves and a woman appears at his doorstep. They get married and she weaves him silk clothing to make them rich, with only one condition: He can never watch her make them. The money from the clothes makes the man greedy, and ignoring his wife’s declining health, he demands more and more from her. One day he bursts into her workshop to see that she is the crane and she’s been plucking her own feathers to make the clothes at the expense of her health. Now discovered, she turns back into a crane and flies away.

Barnhill, in the Crane Husband, reverses not only the genders, but the roles. It is the human who gives up pieces of herself to please her never satiated crane. Layered over that is the story of her family, Michael, a six-year-old boy, and the fifteen-year-old girl who looks after the entire house. This is her story, she is the narrator, but she is never named. Even without a name, her identity is strong, and she has to be strong to look after her crumbling family. Michael is the only named character; the others are Crane, Mother, and Father. 

Having lost my own father not too long ago made these passages difficult to read, but cathartic. Despite polishing off this book in one day, the whole story was difficult to read. There is so much emotion with an engaging exploration of grief, loss, abuse, generational trauma, and hope. 

Six years ago, Father died of a long sickness. After Father died, the girl at only 9 years old had to assume the responsibilities of the house. Mother became withdrawn and irresponsible. She dreamed of turning into a bird and flying away since she saw her family only as a burden. The family made money from the sale of Mother’s beautiful tapestries in auctions organized entirely by the girl under the pseudonym, Bruce.

Despite taking place in a strange land where no one questions a giant crane and all farming is completed by drones, some things sadly remain like our current world. Teachers and a social worker make half-hearted attempts to offer the girl assistance and they fail to do anything substantial. They question the girl and, like Mother, place all responsibility on her young shoulders. The girl and her brother are wasting away, but does anyone bring them food? Money? No; they just badger her with questions and when she is too afraid to come forward, shrug their shoulders and move on.

Even with all this bleakness, the book is beautiful and hopeful. The girl is strong and powerful. She fights for her brother and herself. It’s sad that such a young woman has to take on so much, but it’s inspiring to watch her do so.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book, but I’d keep a box of tissues handy.


Available from Amazon and Bookshop.

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