Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Woefield Poultry Collective

The Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby
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's review
May 23, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, 2011, satire, cover-love
Read from May 22 to 23, 2011 — I own a copy

[Note: This book was published in the US under the title Home to Woefield.]

I have just finished reading this book; I read it between yesterday afternoon and this morning and it was just what I needed: fun, funny, endearing, and didn't require a great deal of concentration. (I am such a flake with my reading these days - somehow, being pregnant makes you lazy mentally - or rather you're just too tired to focus on the page.) I'm letting this book jump the reviewing queue (have finally caught up with March books, but still have April and May to do!) so I can submit it for the Canadian Lit Challenge this month.

Prudence Burns is twenty-four and living off a small allowance resulting from the death of her parents when she was a child. She has aspirations for sustainable, organic farming that her small Brooklyn flat can't quite satisfy, so when she hears that her only living relative, Uncle Harold, has died and left her his farm on Vancouver Island, Prudence wastes no time in packing up and moving across the country and into the Canadian west.

The farm is aptly named Woefield, being a measly 30 acre paddock of scrub and rock and one depressed sheep, but Prudence is unfailingly optimistic and full of plans, even though she knows nothing about farming. That's alright though: the property comes with one Earl Clemente, a grouchy old man who lives in a little cabin at the back of the farm. It takes Prudence a while to realise Earl doesn't know much about farming either, and neither did Uncle Harold - the "farm" has never produced anything and Harold's debts are high. Prudence only has a few months to make enough money to meet the mortgage and credit repayments or the bank will foreclose. She'll take any help she can get, too, including that of Seth from across the road.

Having lived like a hermit in his bedroom since a scandal with his high school drama teacher, twenty-one year old Seth spends his time updating his two blogs, a celebrity gossip rag and a heavy-metal blog, neither of which gets much traffic. His mum, who enjoys a good drink quite frequently and spends her time on "crafts" that litter the small house, moves her boyfriend Bobby in in order to kick Seth out. With nowhere else to go, he crosses the road to Woefield and offers work in exchange for board. Not knowing that Seth is easily the laziest and most useless person around, Prudence accepts.

Also joining their small farming operative is eleven-year-old Sara Spratt and her beloved show-worthy chickens (frizzles and white crested non-bearded black Polish). Forced to find a new home for them because her dad doesn't want them around anymore - he's been surly ever since he lost his job due to embezzlement and has to work construction - Sara bosses Earl around until he builds their coop to her exacting specifications.

With barely any soil on the property, and the raised beds of radishes not making much progress, Prudence comes up with a desperate ploy to get the bank to give her more time. With the aid of her increasingly dysfunctional helpers and one very sexy vet, Prudence has one last idea to pull off; if it works, it could save the farm and her dreams of being a environmentally-responsible farmer.

This was such an endearing book, a sort of seachange of the utmost silliness that has a heart of gold. I love books set on farms, the ones with an eclectic cast of characters and funny situations. Having grown up on a sheep farm in Tasmania (we had chickens too, some of them quite funny-looking), I miss it a lot and love the antics of people who know nothing about farming (covering up shearing nicks with maxi pads!). There's just something about farms, or the country, or rural life, that creates such interesting people, ripe for satire - and who enjoy taking the piss out of themselves better than anyone. The writing group in particular made me laugh, and every reference to the food in Bobby's moustache made me want to look away as if it were right in front of me. None of the characters were spared the satiric eye, and there's an element of self-mockery in the way they talk about themselves, though not deliberately.

Each of the four main characters take turns narrating from their own perspective, in their own voice, so you get a fully three-dimensional visual and understanding. Sometimes they share their own version of the same scene, but never in a way that feels repetitive. Mostly, you get to know them from the inside and the outside, and it can be hilarious and sweet how they see each other. I'd be hard-pressed to say who I liked the most, though Sara would probably be it if I had to choose. I also loved seeing the completely disparate foursome draw close together and become a kind of surrogate family.

Each of them, except maybe Prudence, has their own troubles or demons. Seth has the affair with his high school drama teacher which, while that was kept secret, what he did when she broke it off torments him still and keeps him afraid of the public eye and reliant on alcohol. Earl has a secret past and a missing brother that plagues him still; and Sara's parents are clearly in the middle of an unhappy and deeply troubled separation that just hasn't quite happened yet, but gives Sara anxiety pains in her stomach nevertheless.

While their ignorance of farming and livestock sometimes made me cringe, it's mostly amusing and totally believable. Of course they would think that you needed to keep the dirt out of a sheep's shearing cuts (you don't). Of course they would be alarmed at the happy rogering of the rooster with his harem (hens get depressed if they don't have a rooster, or a "performing" rooster, and you can't judge chicken sex by our own standards of foreplay and consent!). I felt pretty bad for poor Bertie the sheep - Earl was right when he said she was depressed and needed other animals around. Sheep love companionship, and it doesn't have to be other sheep, but they do prefer animals, ones they can sleep alongside. Horses, cows, whatever, they're not picky. Harold had got some very dodgy advice from a Kiwi that you should only shear one half of a sheep at a time, leaving Bertie looking very sad indeed.

I would have liked more detail of the setting - never having been to Vancouver Island, I only have the odd photo and off-hand description to go by, but it seems to be a beautiful place that I would like to know more about. I had trouble picturing Woefield in such a setting, though. I could picture it easily as a random paddock back home - there are plenty of rock-filled, scrubby paddocks that are good for little more than brief grazing for sheep. And aside from the absolutely apt description of shopping at Home Depot (the only thing I'd change is that, rather than having the employees run away from you every time you want to ask where something is, in my experience they are extremely patronising because you're female - please, you're barely eighteen with spots and don't know one end of a hammer from the other!), there was little fleshing-out of the town or community. While some of the locals were introduced - and were also ridiculous and hilarious in their own way, or just sad - the setting is clearly focused on Woefield and its unhappy, struggling workers.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It's the perfect thing to tuck into when you want to escape the heavier, more depressing fiction (which, let's face it, Canada has plenty of). It's quirky but is full of "home truths" and redemptive characters without being in any way moralising or corny. If you, like me, enjoyed Cold Comfort Farm, then I think you'll delight in this one.
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