When they're liberated from the brutal egg factories in which they lay, live and die (mostly die), hens huddle together in a dangerous way, Deb Olin Unferth's bracing new novel tells us. "They were so used to being in those tiny cages that they were terrified of the space, all that air, the roof high overhead, and above it sky, terrible freedom." Each hen fights to get to the middle of the clump, where they suffocate one by one.

Like Gallus gallus domesticus, we're afraid of that terrible freedom, too. We hide in our homes, staring at screens to distract ourselves from what we don't want to see.

But maybe our independent spirit isn't quite bred out of us yet. Maybe all hope is not lost for the hens, either. "Barn 8" is about what can happen when we shake off our stupor and challenge the status quo. Satirical and smart, veering from hilarious comedy to incisive commentary, "Barn 8" demands that we reconsider our unexamined lives. Somewhere, in that great activist desert in the sky, Edward Abbey and his Monkey Wrench Gang are applauding.

In "Barn 8," a wayward hen that has stumbled out of a collapsing pen and strolled away becomes the catalyst for an audacious plan. Fed up with conditions at the factory farm on which they work, Cleveland and Janey, auditors for the U.S. egg industry, decide to steal a million chickens. They enlist a network of quirky and committed activists for this impossible act of rebellion.

But is it impossible? Where Unferth's sympathies lie is obvious, though she is never sanctimonious and even offers up an argument for cheap factory farming. "Raise the price of eggs and the poor man's family doesn't eat," a supervisor tells Cleveland. Unferth also highlights the disconnect between an activist's dream and a chicken's reality. Most of the stolen hens will die, the activists know. But isn't death better than pain, filth and misery, locked away from everything that makes a chicken a chicken?

Author of five other novels, Unferth excels at the grim details of barn life. But she's also a terrific comic writer, and her forays into chicken history and psychology are delightful, especially when she ventures into the mind of Bwwaauck, the Barn 8 escapee who makes a promise to the sisters she leaves behind.

"There is a particular cheep isolated by bird researchers who specialize in the Gallus gallus. This sound, when tagged onto the end of a vocalization, translates to something like, 'It's coming.' So a mother might cheep to her chicks, 'Follow me up here! Danger — it's coming! … This cheep works as a rudimentary form of the future tense."

Bwwaauck flees her broken cage on that pledge of "It's coming!" On her feathered shoulders — do chickens have shoulders? — rests the hope of every hen on this farm. Maybe she's our hope for redemption, too.

Connie Ogle is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in Florida.

Barn 8

By: Deb Olin Unferth.

Publisher: Graywolf Press, 282 pages, $16.

Event: Wordplay book festival, May 9, downtown Minneapolis.