I love me some sheep. Their weirdo eyeballs facing the wrong direction. Their participation in cloning science. Their tendency to charge right at you when you scare them (so bold!). The way you can pet their fuzzy noses forever at the 4-H fair. How they get into trouble. I’m a fanatic of Shaun the Sheep and will watch those six-minute shows over and over. Did you know a brand-new season was dropped on Netflix this week? Be still, my heart! So when I found Sheepish by Catherine Friend, I was pumped.
Put together like a collection of mini essays, Sheepish begins with Friend showing a young couple around her farm in an effort to sell it. Sad! The young man seems obsessed with the electric fence and how much it might hurt, and he eventually shocks himself like a total idiot. Although this is a funny start to the memoir, it doesn’t bode well for Friend and her wife trying to sell their beloved farm. Isn’t this book about being farmers? And, more specifically, shepherds?
The next chapter, or maybe mini essay, if you will, defines “sheepish.” Yes, there is the embarrassed version. But Friend prefers the “ish” to mean “of or belonging to. Thinking: Spanish — of or belonging to Spain. Danish — of or belonging to fruit-filled pastries. Sheepish — or or belonging to sheep.” And one not need to own sheep be sheepish (I’m sheepish!). However, Friend is a writer, more attuned to people than barnyards. But her partner, Melissa, wanted to have a farm and so they got one. I learned there are previous books Friend wrote, including Hit by a Farm and The Compassionate Carnivore that I shall have to check out that discuss actually getting a farm and reconciling eating the faces one cares for.
This isn’t your average city dweller buying a farm and getting in over her head memoir. Friend’s grandmother was a shepherd in Montana, and the author is willing to put in the work. Thus, you read about lots of errors, learning how to help and manage sheep, why sheep die, and lots about people crazy about knitting and wool. Because each chapter is so short and reads a bit like a separate piece, each one feels intimate and is easy to digest. I got lots of warm feelings, even if I was reading about the death of lambs after being born, because the whole book felt natural and organic to life processes.
It also helps that Friend knits (ahem) these small chapters together by carrying over moments from previous chapters. As she enters menopause, she can’t stop crying over the fact that Elvis is dead. Elvis tears are referenced in future chapters, and you feel like you’re in on a joke. In another example: Friend shares fellow farmer E.B. White’s (of Charlotte’s Web fame) list of numbers for counting sheep using the Celtic system:
These Celtic numbers come back throughout the memoir, and to great comedic effect (imagine how often one can use “bumfitt” in amusing ways). The whole memoir is herded (ahem) together to make one flock (ahem) of a book.
Even though Sheepish was published in 2011 and shares environmental concerns, it doesn’t feel too dated (well, other than that Britney Spears reference, which was dated in 2011, too). One fact Friend shares is that sheep have been used to prevent forest fires by releasing them in areas with high underbrush growth so the sheep can eat it up. Given that fire outbreaks are constant news now, sheep seem more vital than ever, though sadly the number of sheep and shepherds are declining.
But I never felt like I was getting too much into the factual weeds. Friend combines humor with fact, such as describing how animals are bred on her farm (put the ram in with ewes in the proper month to avoid winter births) vs. how other farmers do things:
This virtual speed mating is called artificial insemination. Basically, you have an expensive ram with great genes and a healthy libido. Instead of dragging him all over the planet to visit the ladies, the farmer gives the ram a plastic cup and two back issues of Totally Shorn Ewes, and soon there’s some sperm available.
What could easily be an “ew” moment is made lighter by suggesting the ram has some saucy reading materials.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Sheepish and mixture of humor, storytelling, and facts it presented. I felt strengthened by reading about two women joining their female farming ancestors. I was tapped into the significance of many women gathering to turn wool into yarn and yarn into clothing, all while sharing their stories. If you’re struggling to read right now, the short chapters and light topic may be just right for you.