Recent Reading: The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill

Okay, so The Crane Husband is a short novella by a new-to-me author.

Lovely cover. For whatever reason, I just find this really appealing, even though the pale letters vanish somewhat against the paler components of the background. Regardless, I still really like this. Lovely cover, lovely presentation by, let me see, Tor. Ah ha, I bet this was a Tor novella; I’m sure you all know tor.com has been publishing original novellas for some time. Here’s the description:

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.

I think this description is a little misleading, or maybe quite misleading. I’ll explain why in a minute. First, let’s look at the way this story opens:

The crane came in through the front door like he owned the place. My mother walked slightly behind, her hand buried past her wrist in his feathers. He was a tall fellow. Taller than a man, by a little bit. I watched him duck his head down to pass through the low doorway leading into our elderly farmhouse. His stride was like that of any other crane, all dips and angles, forward and back, and yet. He still seemed to carry himself with an unmistakable swagger. He surveyed our house with a leer. I frowned.

Very atmospheric! We can see already that this is probably going to skirt the edges between fantasy and magical realism, which it does.

I see Barnhill is a NYT bestselling author, which for me is rather more a disincentive to pick up a book than otherwise. This novella has a laudatory quote from Laura Ruby, which is good – I would like to re-read Bone Gap one of these days – and another from Catherynne M Valente, which isn’t exactly great from my point of view because although anybody can see Valente is an extraordinarily gifted writer, I don’t actually like her stories. I picked up The Crane Husband in paper at the World Fantasy Convention. Now that I’ve read it, I feel it has two counts against it:

A) The plot only works because the protagonist is quite slow on the uptake, and

B) The ending is at best on the dark side of ambiguous.

I am actually okay with ambiguous endings (though probably less okay with that kind of ending than I used to be). But in this case, I wouldn’t say the ending is just ambiguous. I definitely think it’s way over on the grim side of ambiguous. If I were picking a story to compare this to, I would suggest The Changling Sea by McKillip, which is a fairy tale, though not a retelling; and told beautifully; and has an ambiguous ending that is much, much more solidly on the happy side.

Don’t read the rest of this post unless you’re okay with big spoilers for The Crane Husband, and for that matter much less important spoilers for The Changeling Sea.

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You remember how, at the beginning of The Changeling Sea, Peri’s mother has drifted out of touch with the world following the death of Peri’s father, and how at the end the mother comes back into the world and reestablishes her relationship with Peri? If you don’t remember that, here is the opening paragraph of The Changeling Sea:

No one really knew where Peri lived the year after the sea took her father and cast his boat, shrouded in a tangle of fishing net, like an empty shell back onto the beach. She came when she chose to, sat at her mother’s hearth without talking, brooding sullenly at the small, quiet house with the glass floats her father had found, colored bubbles of light, still lying on the dusty windowsill, and the same crazy quilt he had slept under still on the bed, and the door open on quiet evenings to the same view of the village and the harbor with the fishing boats homing in on the incoming tide. Sometimes her mother would rouse herself and cook; sometimes Peri would eat, sometimes she wouldn’t. She hated the vague, lost expression on her mother’s face, her weary movements. Her hair had begun to gray, she never smiled, she never sang. The sea, it seemed to Peri, had taken her mother as well as her father, and left some stranger wandering despairingly among her cooking pots.

There you go. This element is fundamental to the background in The Changeling Sea, and the resolution of the story shows how the mother has finally moved toward recovery. The relationship between Peri and her mother has been repaired, not as though nothing had happened, but as though something important had been broken or lost and has now been recovered.

Well, though this setup is quite similar in The Crane Husband, that’s not how the ending works at all. I mean, at all.

And this is worse because in The Crane Husband, at the end, the mother abandons not only her fifteen-year-old daughter, but also her little son, who is six; and besides that, the central relationship between the protagonist and her younger brother is broken off sharply and does not get repaired. This is not exactly how I prefer a story to end. Almost every decision Barnhill makes about how to handle the ending is a decision I dislike.

The crane is defeated. That part is good. But it’s far too late. The mother leaves, which was strongly foreshadowed and besides, the mother was almost entirely absent anyway, so that’s okay. The little brother is separated from his sister and goes to a foster family, which is all very well, but we find out in the epilogue that he ran away from the foster family when he was fifteen and disappeared, so obviously his life was unhappy in some very important ways. The reader is not given any sign that he is actually okay. He is just gone. The protagonist of the story, who is never named as far as I can remember, is a highly competent person who is fine on her own, sort of, except to me it seems plain she is not fine. She thinks she is fine. I disagree. She completes the shattering of her family by rejecting her mother right at the end, or that’s how I interpret this ending.

What with all this, the protagonist does not “change the ending of the story” in the sense of changing it from a tragic ending to a better ending. The crane is dead, but nothing is saved. The ending looked like it was going to be bleak and yep, it’s still bleak, just in a (slightly) different way. The family is still destroyed, every relationship broken, nothing saved from the wreckage.

Did I say the ending was on the dark side of ambiguous? Thinking about it now, as I write this, I’m changing my mind. It’s not ambiguous. It’s dark. This story presents a problem that cannot be overcome in time to save the family; love that is unbearable and broken; relationships that irretrievably shatter; a nameless protagonist who is highly competent and yet unable to save anything she loves; and all of this against a backdrop that showcases the implacable and impersonal destruction of personal history and the roots of families – but the long history of this family is also shown as implacable, impersonal, and destructive.

Wow, this is getting darker and darker.

This story is beautifully written. It’s an interesting retelling of the fairy tale of the crane wife. But the dark tone pushed me away hard, so I did not engage with the story on an emotional level, only on an intellectual level. I appreciated the protagonist on an intellectual level, but I only sort of liked her. Her commitment to protecting her brother and saving her mother, that part is fine. But her ineffectuality is difficult to take, especially because ineffectuality is something I just detest in a protagonist.

All the elements were in place for the protagonist to act much, much more quickly than she did. She spends a lot of time not acknowledging the obvious truth that the crane is the man and the man is the crane, and yes, the setting is more or less contemporary, but even so, this was VERY OBVIOUS. If she had acknowledged that more quickly and implemented the exact same solution, but earlier, then the ending would have been, or could have been, much better.

Unlike with other stories, I don’t feel that the protagonist is ineffectual because the author lacks the skill to redesign the plot in order to make her effectual. As I’m sure the author has every bit of the skill she would need to do anything, I’m left to conclude that she deliberately chose to draw a world where it’s impossible to win, and worse, a world where winning wouldn’t get you anything worth having because the history of the family is based on abuse, and family bonds are seen primarily as bonds, particularly as bonds for women. The family is shown here as something to escape, in particular for mothers to escape, and if you actually have something worthwhile within the family, too bad, because here we see a situation where even the best family bonds are shown as inevitably and irretrievably shattered.

I literally did not realize how dark I found this story and how awful I found the world drawn here until I wrote this review. But, now that I’ve laid out what I think the heart of the story actually is, I guess I would call this a fairy tale retelling that falls into the grimdark category. I hadn’t previously been aware of any book that occupied the intersection between those categories, but here we are.

No matter how pretty the hardcover book is, this is one I’ll be giving away. Also, though I know someone here commented that they found Kelly Barnhill’s books worth reading, I don’t think I will ever be inclined to read anything else of hers.

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9 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill”

  1. Yikes! I never had an inclination to read The Crane Husband, and now it’s confirmed.

    As for Valente, did you ever try The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making? That’s a strange, fun, whimsical book.

    You might also try one of her earlier works, In the Night Garden. It’s a “stories within stories” novel.

  2. Robert, yep, that’s about right.

    I did read The Girl Who, and you’re right, I didn’t dislike that one. I had forgotten about that, and in fact I don’t remember much of anything about it now. I remember everyone raved about it, but I just didn’t find it all that memorable, apparently. I also tried In the Night Garden — FINE, YES, I had forgotten about that one too. But I didn’t make it very far, because I actually found the stories-within-stories unappealing. I kept wanting to get back to the initial story and kept resenting being pulled into one new story after another. That was just me, and maybe it was just me right at that moment. I put it back on my TBR shelves rather than getting rid of it, but I’ve never gone back to it.

  3. I read “When Women Were Dragons,” which I think was the NYT bestseller by Barnhill, and my notes about it were “beautifully written, but not much fun, don’t read this author again.” Which is not to imply that the only thing I care about in a book is fun, but I don’t like reading things that leave me feeling depressed. I can’t even remember now why I thought it was a downer, but it was definitely darker than I look for in an escape.

  4. I had gotten this from the library and was having trouble getting started on it – I think I’ll just return it

  5. I sort of remember reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and bits of it have stuck – drinking moonlight and starlight, mainly – but mostly the story was forgettable. And your review has not inclined me to pick up this novella. Although a grimdark fairy tale might be intellectually interesting, life is too short to bother with such.

    … The Teen just wandered through, saw the top of the post and said “don’t bother with that book”. When I remarked I thought she’d liked TGWDtM, I got an analysis of what was wrong with it. Much the same problems as this one, with additional view point jumping and the author forcing the protagonist’s ignorance. And that knowing that particular fairy tale, definitely doesn’t trust the author to pull off any retelling.

    afterthought on the way out of the room – “I’m not sure that book HAD a protagonist”. [TGWDtM] Which is something said yesterday about Saint Death’s Daughter. So that makes three books I know of where that can be said. The third being Lord of the Middle Air by Michael Scott Rohan. And isn’t that an odd thing to think about a story?

  6. Oh, I’ve got one for that category, Elaine T — more than one.

    That’s a problem with the later books in two different series by Elizabeth Moon: you’re halfway through them and you don’t know who the protagonist is. Because there is no protagonist. There are too many characters, too many of them uninteresting. That happens with both the later Serrano books and with the Kings of the North series.

    I think other writers can sometimes pull this off. I think it would be hard to pick out one protagonist in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy. But in her case, all the pov characters are compelling enough that the reader (meaning me) is pulled through the story without wondering whether there is a central protagonist. In Elizabeth Moon’s series, nope, sorry, I just quit.

  7. Regarding Saint Death’s Daughter, I finished that a couple of weeks ago, and I thought it definitely had a protagonist, the single viewpoint character.

    That book most reminded me of Brust’s Khaavren novels. Not the plot, but the world.

  8. @Sarah Wynde, I actually found When Women Were Dragons quite fun, but that’s because I think turning into a dragon is an awesome way to express anger! And at least family ties were still valued in that book (though apparently all men in the 1950s were terrible people)(to be fair, I think she did have a couple of not-terrible men).

    I’m glad I read your spoilers, Rachel, because I would *hate* The Crane Wife. *shudder*

    I did like The Girl Who Drank the Moon, but in a “this is interesting and beautifully written” way, not a “I adore this book” way. And I did find it odd that for a children’s book the child was definitely not the protagonist.

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