Book review: ‘Chickens in the Road,’ by Suzanne McMinn
October 24, 2014
With our world running a million miles a minute, and few opportunities left where we can unplug and get away from the intense and fast-paced madness of it all, we all have moments when we yearn to escape and try our luck at simpler living, which for most people never goes further than a vague musing over a bygone era. Soon, we are right back at it, bustling through our busy lives in a frenzy, our social encounters nothing more than accidental bumps against other rats trying to navigate the same maze of modern life.
Occasionally, though, someone dwells a little longer on those momentary thoughts, and those musings manage to slip into the realm of dreaming, anchoring them a little more deeply in the soul. Even more rarely, a person recognizes those dreams as a signal that a crossroads is imminent and a decision needs to be made. Most people who get this far along the path ignore Robert Frost's sage advice and stick to the well-trodden path, shifting seamlessly back into the rat race until another dream might arise to tempt them later. But for others, like author Suzanne McMinn, the yearnings are taken to heart and a leap is made right off the cliff of fate — landing, in her case, in a steamy pile of manure on a farming venture in rural West Virginia.
McMinn, most comfortable writing lusty romance novels, turns the spotlight onto her own yearning for a simple farming life, documenting this midlife transition in her enchanting and thoughtful memoir "Chickens in the Road." Leaving behind a failed marriage and a life in suburbia with all its comforts — cable TV, big-box stores and pizza delivery — she faces her new future as a single mother of three with every intention of returning to her family's roots in the rolling hills of Appalachia. While her father spent his time saying, "I got out of there as soon as I could," her heart says, "I got here as soon as I could."
With her eyes firmly on the prize — her own little farm — she dives into the prospect the only way she can, sharing the financial burden with her current love interest, a fascinating and unpredictable character with the unlikely name of "52." So eager to immerse herself in the experience of farming, and the challenges and difficulties that accompany living off the land, she settles her family into the house of her ancestors, an outdated ranch house that they dub the "Slanted Little House," while they begin the adventure of building their own farmhouse.
So remote are some reaches of West Virginia that chickens can peck and roost in the middle of the roads, as so little traffic comes along to disturb them. This idea of isolation thrilled McMinn, though her teen children took a little more coaxing, finding the transition from their comfortable suburban lives a challenging prospect. "52" proves to be a complicated character, shifting from supportive of the venture to resentful of her ability to be self-sufficient in all ways except financially.
Soon, an underlying story arch emerges, as her boyfriend's true personality begins to surface. As though plucked from the pages of one of her romance novels, he becomes her own life story's villain, growing increasingly unpredictable and untrustworthy. Meanwhile, in the midst of her own romantic drama, the messy business of farming life threatens to overwhelm her, all while she is falling more deeply in love with the experience.
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Farm life throws up many roadblocks in an attempt to derail her from her zeal for the adventure. First is the fact that the farm's approach is rustic, to say the least — a dirt road with three river crossings and some curves and inclines that are downright dangerous in the winter months. Winter driving fills her with fear, and she finds herself relying heavily on "52" to provide the link to the outside world, picking the kids up from the distant bus stop and making any necessary purchases in town. She is desperate, though, to become more self-reliant, as she realizes that for her own happiness, "52" must no longer be a part of her life.
Instead, she has to find a way to turn her recent writing endeavor — a blog focused on her new world of farming — to pay her way forward. She is desperate to hold on to the world she has come to love. While her relationship is unraveling her soul is taking root in the landscape and she knows she has to find a way to stay on her own. She is smitten with the many animals acquired over time — starting with chickens from her own hatched eggs, then sheep and goats and donkeys, assembling animals with about as much care as she would playing Farmville. But, her true love arrives in the shape of a cow, the pinnacle of the farming life, in her estimation.
"If self-sustainable living is an addiction, canning is a gateway drug. Next thing you know, you're dehydrating, pickling, fermenting and milking a cow." Yet, while she is having these deeply moving experiences with the animals under her care and feeling grateful for the nourishment they and the farm can give her, body and soul, she is growing increasingly desperate to find a path forward that does not include the man who helped get her there. It is like watching a game of "Survivor," with the winner claiming the farm and a constant plotting of how to vote "52" off.
"Chickens in the Road" is a charming nod to those dreamers who are also willing to work hard for what they want. With all the drama of one of her romance novels, McMinn invites the reader along to experience the hardships and the blessings, the simple recipes and the clever crafts and the exhilarations and the heartbreaks of loving and living on a farm.
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