June 01, 2012

The Woefield Poultry Collective

by Susan Juby
HarperCollins Canada
336 pp.
Ages 14+

Reviewed from audiobook
Audible Audio edition
Narrated by Carter Hayden, Kate Griffin, Jennifer Walls, Michael Fletcher
7 hours, 51 minutes

Whether reading the hardcopy or ebook or listening to the audiobook of The Woefield Poultry Collective, ensure that you are in a secure location where your outbursts (n.b. plural) will not disturb others, because they will be frequent and they will be hearty. Luckily they won't be prolonged because there isn't time to laugh endlessly - the next chortle is imminent.  So you will end up laughing, looking around to make sure you haven't caught anyone's attention, continue reading and then laugh again.  Ah, it's a vicious cycle.  But, if you need to explain, just tell your audience to read Susan Juby's The Woefield Poultry Collective to fully comprehend the nature of your lack of self-control and note that it had been shortlisted for the 2012 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. 

Though an apartment-dwelling New Yorker, Prudence Burns lives by the principles and practices of environmental responsibility.  She has vermi-composting with red wigglers; she installed solar panels; she passionately sorts her waste for recycling; she buys organic, free-trade and local; and her only foray into writing, a YA novel titled, "The Sun Doesn't Always Forgive," focuses on the consequences of global warming.  Luckily for her, just as her relationship with the pompous Leo goes down the tubes and she considers her options for a career, she inherits Woefield Farm from her great uncle, Harold, her only relative and one she'd never met.

Convinced her dream has come true, Prudence embraces the opportunity to become a farmer and packs herself up to move to Woefield Farm, a scrubby piece of land off the coast of B.C.  With her passion for challenges and all things earthly, Prudence sees the limitless potential in the overgrown, rocky land with its old house, burned down barn, Bertie, the half-sheared sheep, and the elderly curmudgeon, Earl, who lives at the cabin on the property.

With her energetic charm, Prudence has no problems drawing people to her vision and to helping out, usually without them even realizing they've been snagged by her.  First, there's Hugh the cabbie who drops her off at Woefield.  Then it's Earl, the cantankerous banjo playing, TV documentary fan, who was her uncle's right-hand man, who first sticks around to protect and advise Prudence but ultimately grows to care, in his own way, for her passionate ways. Then, Seth, an alcoholic, heavy metal and celebrity gossip blogger, who has secluded himself for a few years (there was an unfortunate incident at the high school) until his mother kicks him out, joins the farm.  Finally, eleven-year-old Junior Poultry Fancier, Sara Spratt, becomes a regular fixture at Woefield after Mrs. Spratt pays to have a coop built there to house her daughter's chickens.

Prudence learns from the bank that Woefield is essentially a negative asset and she is responsible for paying the mortgage, a home equity loan and long-overdue taxes and bills.  But, far from discouraged, Prudence finds the means to make Woefield the farm of her dreams, armed only with her limitless energy, menagerie of sidekicks, and positive attitude.

The Woefield Poultry Collective has been acclaimed as adult humour but I believe that teens in high school would delight in Prudence's story, especially as Susan Juby's skills are founded in YA literature.  Prudence may be a twenty-something character, but her voice and those of Susan Juby's other characters are so distinctive and familiar that teens will revel in their humour and odd perspectives.  Seth, from whom expletives pour like beer, may be twenty-one but he's still living in his high school years since having never graduated or achieved closure after the "incident" at the school play.  Sara may be smart enough to manage in a dysfunctional family and share her knowledge of poultry practices, but she is still a child, naive enough to misunderstand Seth's drunkedness, her dad's "misappropriateness" at the bank (which cost him his job) and Earl's swearing and lack of initiative.  With Susan Juby's evocative text, the narrators on the audiobook of The Woefield Poultry Collective do not just read the words, they become their characters.  Listen to a preview of it at Audible.com to share in the flavour that is Earl.

While Prudence may seem far too upbeat and environmentally-conscious for some readers, I know a few persons just like her, and the virtue that is Prudence's is that she doesn't preach or tell others how to live their lives.  Even when Seth is falling down drunk, Prudence tries to find a way to help rather than just berate him.  She's just the embodiment of the old adage, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade."  Prudence makes lemonade with sparkly ice-cubes made of well water.

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