Kelly Barnhill On the Love, Obligation, and Trauma at the Heart of The Crane HusbandBooks Features Kelly Barnhill
Kelly Barnhill’s The Crane Husband is on its surface, a rather bizarre tale. But the story of a struggling family of three whose artistic, indifferent mother brings home an abusive, six-foot-tall crane as a lover, itself a response—Barnhill herself likes the word “interrogation”—of the folk tale “The Crane Wife” holds surprising depths.
A grim fairytale for grown-ups with sharp emotional edges and knife-bright prose, The Crane Husband wrestles with both contemporary themes and age-old questions of love, duty, and identity these sorts of stories have always existed to explore. And the answers it offers will likely stay with you well past the slim (though certainly not thin) novella’s last pages.
We had the chance to chat with Barnill herself about the magical realism of her story, its complex exploration of what love is (and isn’t), and why the narrator of the story doesn’t have a name.
Paste Magazine: The Crane Husband is a retelling of “The Crane Wife” — what made you want to sort of interrogate that particular piece of folklore this way?
Kelly Barnhill: I love questions like this because they assume that I am somehow in charge of the things that move me towards the page or what pulls me forward inside of a story. I like the idea of being in charge, but I assure you that I absolutely am not. So much of how I operate as a writer is powered by instinct, curiosity, and trust—trust in the characters, trust in the innate intelligence of the story itself, trust that my imagination has led me to this place on purpose, and hopefully knows what it’s doing.
I usually don’t understand what it is that I’m writing until I’ve written it. I didn’t realize that I was writing a response to “The Crane Wife” (I would never call it a retelling—even the word “response” is a little strong. I feel it’s more like an echo of the original story, if that makes sense) until I was really in the thick of it. But I really like that you use the word “interrogate” in that question, and I think it warrants more examination.
As a kid, I was obsessed (to put it gently) with fairy tales, and read as many as I could get my fists on. I read them, and wrote them, and told my own versions and mashups of them, again and again, out loud to an audience made up of my littler siblings or cousins or kids I was babysitting. Or to my cat. Or sometimes, just to myself. Fairy tales, for me, were an important means by which I could understand my own life, my own mistakes, my own feelings, and chart my own future. They made me think deeply about the nature of love, and kindness, and the price of honor. They made me question our relationship with the unknown, the purpose of wildness in both nature and the human heart, and the price of transformation.
As for this story, and this source text—I have read the story of “The Crane Wife” (or “The Grateful Crane”) more times, than I can count, along with many other stories of the Bird Spouse/Animal Spouse category, which pop up all over the place in traditional folklore across several continents. As is the case with fairy tales, these stories have a tendency to take root in the psyche and replicate in our imaginative wanderings, our creative interpretations, our sense-making and categorization of the world, and in our dreams.
When I started this story, I was in an ancient RV, driving across a pandemic-ridden landscape. I wasn’t particularly thinking about the original story. What I was thinking about was displacement, entropy, and generational harm. I was thinking about the purpose of art in the face of a world that had lost its health and its mind. I was thinking about the cost of survival. When did I realize that the story I was writing was moving to the echo of a story that was still alive, deep within me? I’m not sure. Maybe halfway through? Maybe further? But once I realized it, I opened myself fully to the story. I listened for the far-away sounds of its sad melodies and hoped the counterpoint that I was writing would harmonize in some way. Does that make sense? I hope so. So much of this process makes absolutely no sense to me. All I really hope for is to be present, and to allow something to unfold. Something that wants to be.
Paste: But the story also isn’t just a straight gender swap of the original, either—you touch on a lot of the same things about female exploitation and abuse, but also there’s a really, almost bleak through line about the tension between love and obligation. Talk to me a bit about what you felt were the most important themes to tease out in your version.
Barnhill: For me, there is no tension between love and obligation. Love requires obligation, just as it requires tenderness, openness, and care. It’s a removal of the Self from the altar of the heart and placing another there. But even more than obligation, love requires openness and vulnerability as well – and that’s where the trouble lies. In this story, the mother takes a new, dangerous lover, and believes she is in love with him—but is she? Does she even know what that means? I’m not sure that she does.
Prior to the death of her husband, she saw the love she had for her family as temporary—therefore removed from long-term obligation, tenderness, and care, which doesn’t sound a lot like love to me. Later, when she brings home the crane, she speaks of love, but what we see is something fundamentally transactional—he wants the tapestry (along with the temporary possession and use of her body), while she wants to fly away no matter the cost. Is that love? Again, it doesn’t sound like it to me.
So really, I think this story is an exploration of things that seem like love, but aren’t. And it’s that confusion, that misdirection, that leads us into very dangerous places—the loss of ourselves, the harming of our hearts and bodies, and even the festering wound of generational abuse.
Paste: We learn so much about our narrator, but never some of the most basic facts about her (most notably, her name). How do you see her journey in this story?
Barnhill: It’s funny—I never realized that I hadn’t named her until I finished the story.
I inhabited her voice and her thinking and her body so completely that I never once gave a thought to her name or face. Which makes sense, honestly. I never think about my name either, in the course of my day. I don’t think about what my own face looks like, or how it is perceived. I think most of us don’t.
But once I realized this, I decided that it was important that it remain this way. In fairy tales, after all, our heroes and heroines are rarely named—-they certainly weren’t in the source text for this story. And I think that’s important. When they aren’t named, it creates an opening for the reader to slide into those shoes, this gown, that armor, these feathers. Naming is a kind of othering when it comes down to it—it is a means of identifying a character as Not Me, rather than an invitation to inhabit and connect more fully.
Paste: I think it’s really easy to resent the mother for her actions—her neglect of her children, her repeated choice to put the crane and its desires above basic things like her family having enough to eat—but there’s also something so tragic and sad about how badly she just wants freedom, or perhaps the absence of responsibility I never quite landed on which I think it was. But I find the story about the mothers turning into birds and flying away so haunting—where do you come down on her as a character?
Barnhill: I feel the same way! She has failed her family so utterly, so completely, as to be irredeemable. She has been failed by her own family (her “hard man” of a father; her mother who flew away) so utterly, so completely, as to be sympathetic. There is something deeply female in the tension between the need to flee and the need to remain tied to the nest, as it were.
In a way, she fled her family long before the crane showed up, and abdicated her responsibilities, unforgivably, to a child. In the end, I think it’s impossible to come down on any side. Yes, she is sympathetic. Yes, she is irredeemable. Yes, she is broken, hungry, selfish, creative, lovable, hopeful, incredibly talented, and sometimes vile. All of those things at once.
Paste: I was fascinated by the dystopian tidbits that are sprinkled throughout this book. (And was so curious about all the stuff we didn’t see about how this version of the world came to be.) How do you see this setting playing into the larger meaning of the tale?
Barnhill: Is it dystopian? As far as how the world got to that point—we might not “see” it on the page, but we can look around at farming economies now and “see” aspects of this change in agriculture practices this very second. Since 1970, the price per acre of farmland in America has increased by a little over 1,600%. Also, in 1970, about 95% of all farmland was owned by individual farmers. Today that has fallen to about 60%, and it is expected to continue to fall. And that’s just the percentage of actual farms. Investment firms and conglomerated entities tend to purchase extremely large farms, and have been expanding on that – it’s estimated that by 2040 just 5% of farms will control 70% of the agricultural output. Is what I write about a dystopia?
Which brings me back to my original question: is what’s happening now a dystopia? I’m not sure. I guess I don’t entirely see it that way. The world that we live in isn’t exactly ideal, and the way farming works isn’t exactly the same as it used to be, and isn’t the same as it will be someday. The world changes, after all.
Paste: What do you think happens next in the space after this story is finished? Do you think the narrator has broken the cycle of abuse and abandonment that seemed so prevalent in her family? Does she find something like peace? Is she secretly also a wildly talented weaver?
Barnhill: So, the thing about stories stemming from trauma—especially generational trauma—is that it’s not just about survival. We must also survive the actions we took and the choices we made in order to ensure that survival. In other words: we must survive our own survival. In our heroine’s case, it’s hard to say. Is she happy? Is she whole? Is she fully free? I certainly hope so.
Paste: Is it easier or more difficult to write a novella than a full-length novel? I think I’d drive myself nuts with all the things I’d want to leave in but need to cut. Was there ever a longer version of this story in your mind?
Barnhill: I knew from the beginning that I was writing a novella, and I’m not exactly sure how.
This happened to me the last time I wrote a novella, as well—once I could see the story’s “shape”, I knew it would land at around 25,000 words. And then it did. Don’t ask me how. As I said earlier, I’m not in charge.
Paste: What it is about magical realism that you think readers respond to so strongly? (I love that at no point do we ever even question the premise of a woman dating a giant crane who also wears clothes sometimes and is secretly a man.)
Barnhill: I think any story that interrupts reality like that – and then forces the reader to simply accept this mad set of facts and simply proceed as though nothing’s wrong – is a gentle reminder for all of us to re-think the world we live in, and question what we think is true, and who is laying out that reality for us. I think for those of us who had abusive relationships in our past (or who are in them right now) that subversion (and perversion) of reality is simply part of a normal day. Abuse requires the acceptance of unacceptable things, and abusers are quite adept at telling those in their thrall to not accept the experience of our eyes and ears but only adhere to rules of reality dictated by the dictator. We saw this written largely and terribly by our Abuser-in-Chief during the 45th presidential administration – what was true was false; what was false was true; the phone call was perfect and that recording was wrong and the thing you saw wasn’t true and so on and so on. Fiction can help make sense of these things. Sometimes you have to see the world as it isn’t, in order to understand it as it is.
Paste: What’s next for you as an author? Are you working on anything you can tell our readers about?
Barnhill: Currently, I’m not writing a darn thing. I’m still in recovery from a major concussion a year ago (my third of my adult life because I am unbearably clumsy—but this one was particularly bad. I was unconscious for fifteen minutes, was unable to drive for nine months, and couldn’t read for about that same amount of time. I’m healing. Slowly.)
At present, I can’t really hold more than one thought at a time in my head. Which means that I don’t experience anxiety at all anymore (a bonus!) but alas, writing fiction requires a person to hold stacks of thoughts—who are in turn also holding stacks of thoughts. Like acrobats. Or a house of cards. So fiction is really out of the question for the time being. What I can do is write a beautiful sentence—something that pleases me –every day. And then I recycle them. But it’s a good practice, rather like completing a lovely drawing with many colors of chalk on the sidewalk, right before the rains come.
Paste: And my favorite question I always love to end on is — what are you reading right now? What kinds of stories are you drawn to versus the kind you write?
Barnhill: Oh my gosh! I just finished the twin novellas in the Monk and Robot series by Becky Chambers. What a delight! And I’m right now in the middle of How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu. Also a delight. And, as always, I’m reading fairy tales—a large stack of old volumes that I got from the library. I recommend this. There are few things better suited for healing the soul than a hefty serving of fairy tales.
Maybe we all should spend some time heeding the advice that they give us again and again—return that fish to the ocean, don’t let that jerk you’re walking with stamp that colony of ants to death, be nice to old ladies, don’t listen to kings, rescue that wolf pup from the trap, share your lunch with a beggar, and, most importantly, when your loved one transforms beyond all reckoning, hold on, hold on, hold on for dear life.
The Crane Husband is available now from Tordotcom.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.