Book Review: Eliza the Pig, by Alexandra McClanahan

ElizaAlexandra McClanahan’s new book, Eliza the Pig, focuses on the people and animals on a traditional farm in Nebraska. As the story is told through the eyes of one of the farm’s female pigs, the author tackles a difficult reality of today’s agriculture system in an easy-to-read, nonjudgmental style that will appeal to readers from middle school to adults. Charming, sweet Eliza, a Berkshire sow, has a strong attraction to her caregiver, Angela. Farmers Angela and Joel Manning are true partners, working alongside each other and dividing up the farm work. They use ancestral knowledge and their own experiences to make decisions about their animals, including grazing the orchard, keeping animals warm in winter, and understanding the animal’s individual needs. They impart this attitude to their children and to their neighbors. Angela and Joel treat each animal with respect, although Angela has a special affection for the pigs on the farm.

Eliza listens, observes, and learns from Joel and Angela. When her piglets are born, she is especially proud when Joel gives each one its own name. He waits until he sees each piglet’s unique characteristics, and then names it appropriately. For Eliza, knowing that her piglets have a name, softens the loss when the time comes for them to leave the farm. She reminds herself that Joel and Angela talk about the cycle of life, especially that cycle’s role on the farm.

Life on the farm is filled with joys, sorrows, challenges, and change. The biggest change comes when a large hog confinement facility is built nearby. The stench from the manure becomes unbearable at times, forcing the family to spend nights in a hotel. Angela and Joel are reminded of the writings of Wendell Berry: “… In taking care of our fellow creatures, we acknowledge that they are not ours; we acknowledge that they belong to an order and harmony of which we ourselves are parts.”

The Mannings and some of their neighbors resort to a lawsuit, which causes deep rifts and disagreements with other friends and neighbors. Eliza worries about the effect of the toxic odors on her piglets and about the effect a confinement must have on the pigs that must live there. She wonders how those pigs can live without losing their minds.

Eventually, the stress and sadness of the nearby hog confinement leads to tragedy for the Manning farm. Life is changed forever. Eliza reminds herself of the positive experiences on the farm and the cycle of life lessons she learned from Angela and Joel. Thus, Eliza is able to remain hopeful.

The larger tragedy, however, is that the confinement system of raising animals for meat, milk, and eggs has been the economic push that eliminates farmers such as the Mannings and has spread across the United States and around the world. Vertically integrated, corporate control of our commodity agriculture system is considered to be economically efficient. However, the benefits of small to medium scale farms with livestock on the land and cared for by the farmer rather than by employees go beyond immediate economics. These are the farms that feed people directly with healthier food, allow humanity to recognize we are a part of the cycle, and protect the soil, water, and air. They build local communities, reduce transportation of food stuffs, and create a resilient, just food system. They are the basis of food sovereignty.

This book focuses on the positive, yet gives the reader a real sense of the tragedy of confinements. As Eliza remains hopeful through her experience and knowledge of the traditional way of raising livestock, the reader can also experience that hope. Today, more and more young people are attracted to farming, often through their innate connection to animals. We can have hope that the cycle of life can continue in the humane, environmentally sensitive, and community-building way that is exemplified by Farmer Joel and Angela in the book, Eliza the Pig.

Reviewed by Patti Edwardson

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