Friday, August 10, 2012

Hens and Chickens by Jennifer Wixson - Part I

I met Jennifer Wixson through the haphazard world that is Twitter.  I asked a general gardening question that was answered by a lady who owns an heirloom seed business.  Her tweets led me to another gardner, and that one to the publisher of Grit magazine (some of my favorite reading and which is mentioned in the book - see future post) and eventually to Jennifer - "Maine farmer, chicken lover, beekeeper, author and itinerant Quaker minister."  That profile was too intriguing and eclectic to pass up, so I followed @ChickenJen.  We had occasional conversations and I came to think of her as a friend.  

When she asked me if I would be interested in reading and reviewing her latest book, of course I jumped at the chance. When I began to write the review, I wanted to include several passages from the book and I also had a few questions that Jennifer was kind enough to answer.  However, it made for a very long post, so I'm dividing it into two sections.  Part I includes my thoughts on the book and the passages that explain them.  Part II - which will be posted tomorrow - will be Jennifer's answers to my questions.  

I've always been fascinated by anything related to Maine - spending a summer there is on my bucket list.  Jennifer's vivid descriptions of the people and the countryside have me even more anxious to book my plane tickets to Maine.
Most folks from Away think that summer is the best time of year to visit Maine, but they’d be wrong. Mainers know that the best season in the Pine Tree State occurs between Mud Season and Memorial Day—the few weeks of the year during which the state becomes a veritable Garden of Eden; when the flowers, trees, hills, uplands and woodlands awaken and burst into infinite shades of green and when the explosion of yellow forsythia is so bright that it hurts the eye to look at it, but before the serpent opens the door to the Garden and allows in the black flies, mosquitoes and the tourists.  
During this peculiar time, while the showy lilacs and fruit trees hold tight to their buds for later May blooms, the untrained eye examining the landscape might conclude that it lacks the postcard perfection summer folks have come to expect from Maine. But those who live here year-round know that when the soft scent of April fills the air it signals not only that one has survived another winter but also that paradise is born anew. The locals know then that the suckers are running upstreamin the chilly brooks, and that pockets of crystalized snow rest like fairy beds deep in the woods, and that the precious fiddlehead fern delicately swaddled in its brown paper wrapping is poking its head up from the black moss-bottomed stream beds only waiting to be picked. (p. 126-127)
Hens and Chickens is a lovely story of two women who leave the city and their corporate jobs to start a business together in rural Maine. There's both romance and mystery, but what I loved most were the people. The story is cleverly told through a narrator, who's identity we don't discover until late in the book. The ability of the narrator to speak directly to the reader - an "aside", as they call it on stage - made the story unique. 

I appreciated Jennifer's romantic couple, who valued honor and respect above sex.

Lila snuggled closer, with infinite satisfaction. Her euphoria settled down into a steady beatitude. She felt completely safe with him; respected and honored as a woman. (p. 131)
I also enjoyed her depiction of the lifestyle and craftsmanship of earlier generations, and a return to that simpler way. The story is a perfect blend of old and new - sewing, raising chickens in a farmyard, baking, mixed with cell phones and computers.  

Old timers knew how to live, and took care of their comforts. They knew just where to place windows to catch the sun in winter so that they could sit in their rockers and read the Bible. They knew where NOT to place windows, so that the cold northwest blast wouldn’t find a way in around the sashes in the wooden frames. They knew where to build the fireplaces and the chimneys, so that they and their large families would be warm and snug and could cook and yet the smoke wouldn’t bother anyone. They calculated in advance where their tired old hands would come to rest on the upper level of the staircase so that when they hitched themselves up that top stair at night there’d be a solid wooden grip at just the right spot. They knew that what they were building was not just for themselves, but for those who came after them – and the ones who came after them. The old timers who built the Russell place might not have expected Rebecca Johnson and Lila Woodsum to come along to occupy the place, but they knew that the place would still be standing if someone came along. (p. 150)
An "itinerant Quaker pastor" herself, it's not surprising that Jennifer weaves the biblical story of Mary and Martha into her story, or that she includes her thoughts on the power of prayer.

And so before long the whole town of Sovereign knew that one of The Egg Ladies was poorly, and a mutual sympathy began to be expressed. More than a few silent, as well as vocal, prayers were uttered. The supportive sentiment rose from the small community like the ethereal mist that rises up from Black Brook, dispersing up the hill toward the hen pen. Lila, as she went about her day, gathering and cleaning eggs, felt a slight, inexplicable up-lifting of her spirits. 

Who knows the mysterious ways in which love works? Or of the power of prayer? Especially the efficacy of prayers from TWO Maine communities!  Let us never think for a moment that our prayers are wasted, even if they are unwanted. We have nothing to lose by freely sending our silent blessings to the Heavens, and our friends, loved ones and acquaintances might have much to gain.
The story of The Egg Ladies, Lila and Mike's romance, the secrets in Lila's past - all weave together to make a great read but, for me, it was all about the characters and location. I'm in love with the charming village of Sovereign, Maine, and it's inhabitants and can't wait to go back. Good thing there are at least two more books planned in this series.


  1. Lovely! Look forward to Part II.

    I hope your friend has developed an author website around her fictional town and it's characters - I know that has been very successful for other authors to build their series' brand. Incorporating interactive pieces, short story blurbs, recipes and tips.

    As someone who has vacationed in various parts of Maine throughout the seasons I am partial to the coastline and to early September myself. I love watching fall unfold while summer has its last hold on things.

    1. I'd love to create a website specially for Sovereign; I'll put that on my "to do" list! Great idea, thanks!

      In the meantime, my niece Laurel and I have talked about creating The Sovereign Series Cookbook, sharing some of the wonderful old Maine family recipes that I talk about in the books. My sister Cheryl and I were raised at the apron strings (literally) of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, who were all awesome Maine cooks utilizing (and growing/raising) the finest local in-season ingredients.

      My sister currently carries on the tradition in her business, Cheryl Wixson's Kitchen. Here's a link

      Best wishes,
      Jen Wixson, author
      "Hens and Chickens"

  2. Wow Tami you know a real live author! and the book sounds like something I'd love also. Can I join you in Maine for that summer??