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The Crane Husband


The Crane Husband

Kelly Barnhill is the Newbery Medal–winning author of middle grade fiction and has penned WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS, a feminist fantasy novel for adults. Her latest book, THE CRANE HUSBAND, is a novella that reimagines the Japanese folktale “The Crane Wife.”

“Tsuru no Ongaeshi” is one of the most commonly known tales of enchanted spouses and the supernatural. In the most frequently told variation, an old man rescues a crane, who then falls in love with him. The crane decides to turn into a woman who weaves beautiful fabric, ensuring that the man not only will fall for her but will keep her around to sell her exquisite fabrics and live in prosperity. She only asks that he never open the door to the room where her loom sits.

"A haunting, unsettling meditation on abuse, love and obligation, THE CRANE WIFE is yet another terrific book for fans of Barnhill’s middle grade, young adult and adult works of fantasy."

Even with his beautiful wife and successful business, the man becomes greedy. As he asks for more and takes, takes, takes, he finds that he no longer can stand her secrecy. So he bursts through the door to find a crane weaving her own feathers into fabric. Upon seeing her husband, who has broken the only promise she asked him to keep, the crane escapes through an open window, never to be seen again. An allegory of the sacrifices we make for love, “The Crane Wife” is gender-swapped and flipped on its head in THE CRANE HUSBAND.

An unnamed narrator of only 15 watches as her mother, an artist who is prone to collecting strays of both the wounded animal and amorous human varieties, enters their home on the arm --- wing --- of a crane. Tall, with peering, keen eyes, the crane has taken efforts to look like a human man, wearing spectacles, a hat and even the shoes of the girl’s deceased father. In the years since her father’s death, she has become the primary caretaker and caregiver of the household, which includes her little brother. The girl’s mother is focused on her art, the creation of beautiful, life-changing tapestries that tell heartbreaking, gut-wrenching stories that move even grown men to tears. Although the family lives on a tight budget in their already poor farming town, her mother’s art has long supported them. If she takes on a suspicious or cantankerous lover here and there, well, that’s her right, her daughter supposes.

But the arrival of the crane transforms the girl’s mother. Although she locks herself in her studio all day, creating and arguing with her lover, she no longer produces anything, though she claims to be working on a masterpiece. The work is a collaboration between them, one that the crane is demanding and that she is desperate to provide. So focused is she on her new romance that she claims she doesn’t need to eat or sleep, as she has love to sustain her. This only highlights the starvation of her children, forced to skim the moldy bits of old racks of ham and eat creative but stomach-turning meals of beans and relish, stale bread and cold ham. But worst of all, her mother has begun showing up to breakfast --- after nights of loud, brutal sounds of lovemaking --- covered in bruises and deep cuts.

Realizing, once again, that no one is coming to save her, our unnamed narrator takes the lead of her house and home. She is desperate to rescue her mother, but even more so to protect her brother, no matter the cost. In short, searing chapters, the narrator begins --- slowly, much more slowly than the reader --- to recognize the generational patterns and cycles of abuse, the exploitation of women at the hands of men, and, on a grander scale, the dangers of corporatization of agriculture, art and craftsmanship.

A haunting, unsettling meditation on abuse, love and obligation, THE CRANE WIFE is yet another terrific book for fans of Barnhill’s middle grade, young adult and adult works of fantasy. Readers may find the crane difficult to accept at first, but her clever, adept handling of her metaphor and gender-swapped reimagining will heartily reward anyone willing to take a leap of faith on this absurd, surrealist tale.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 3, 2023

The Crane Husband
by Kelly Barnhill

  • Publication Date: February 28, 2023
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror
  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Tordotcom
  • ISBN-10: 1250850975
  • ISBN-13: 9781250850973