Because my husband fancies tending chickens someday, he was excited to see the new book on my desk whose title and cover photo implied that fowl would play a key dramatic role.
The Perry family's move to 37 acres of abandoned family farm in Wisconsin is based precisely, Michael Perry writes, "on the idea of having chickens. We are not alone in this: These Troubled Times seem to have precipitated a fowl renaissance."
I hope I'm not ruining it to reveal that in "Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting," no tangible chickens appear until page 250. The coop isn't done until many pages later, by which time half the original dozen chicks have met their demise. And while his precocious 6-year-old daughter, Amy, appears frequently and he worries about his pregnant wife, Perry doesn't introduce us to a pig until page 183.
OK, so the title is misleading. This book is mostly autobiography, a loose collection of essays in which Perry indulges in wistful memories of his TV-free upbringing. Plowing with his dad, a man who never missed a sunrise in 40 years. Going to services in neighbors' homes as part of an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect he has since disavowed. And learning to accept and love the 60-some foster children his parents took in.
I smiled at his mother's regular Sunday night dinners: Popcorn for everybody! Her "occasional deviations into decadence" included counting "fourteen generic chocolate chips into a pot of oatmeal the size of your head."
But I skipped many of Perry's long descriptions of farm work: Cutting hay. Baling hay. Milking cows. Inseminating cows. Livestock auctions. Those memories might belong in a different book, but here he seems to snuggle deeply into a blankie we can't claim as our own.
Throughout the book, though, I found lovely passages and insights. An abandoned Mason jar on the woodpile in November reminds Perry that last summer his daughter carried it to him, filled with welcome water. "I lift the jar, then replace it, suddenly convinced that it covers a hole where all the time drains away."
Of grieving a lost loved one he writes: "The word closure is tissue paper over a tar pit."
My vocabulary is richer now with Perry's coined words. Scampitude is behaving badly. To scub is to build (a coop, for example) without knowledge or elegance. Slumpage is the physical manifestation of a lack of enthusiasm. And skack is the yuck you hose away after plucking and gutting a chicken.
When you kick off your muddy boots and brush off the hay, you'll find in this book a slender silver cord of smart contemplation about meaning and purpose, by a conscientious man who fears he scubs it. It might better have been titled "Care: Pigs, Poultry, Family and Faith."
Susan Ager is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press.