Jenny Brown opens her memoir with the view from her office at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, which she calls “Mission Control,” and a brief slice of daily life among the furred, hoofed, and feathered, and the humans who come to meet them. Her camaraderie with the critters and zest for the mission ring clear and true; it’s hard to imagine even an agribusiness exec faulting her sincerity.
The farm animal sanctuary movement faces an uphill slog. The opposing forces are entrenched and well-funded enough to mount slick, ubiquitous advertising campaigns. In many demographics, the consumption of meat and dairy are as unquestioned as the breathing of air, and animal rights activists are written off as kooks and fanatics. Brown herself had never heard of vegetarianism until she got to college.
The story of her transformation from scrappy Louisville teen (“Cruise and flirt, eat burgers, smoke cigarettes...and pummel each other when necessary”) to ardent protector of the voiceless is well told and engaging. The loss of her leg to cancer at the age of 10, recounted without self-pity, led her to bond intensely with a kitten she named Boogie, deepened her comprehension of suffering, and helped her develop a reserve of strength and an awareness of differences that would blaze like a wildfire through that mainstream American teen culture as soon as she was exposed to other ways of thinking.
The Lucky Ones clearly traces the events and realizations that led Brown to become first an ethical vegetarian, then a vegan, as part and parcel of the opening of her young mind; anyone whose default assumption is that vegans are humorless and fanatical will be hard pressed to classify her that way. Humorless fanatics don’t usually mine their own scarier moments for hilarity, and generally don’t laugh at themselves well.
Brown does both, and the result is a book that avoids the pitfalls of priggishness and rage, offering insight into the mindset and growth process that create an effective advocate instead of—well, a raging prig. As a film student, she worked extensively with PETA, after passing a loyalty test of sorts that involved being tackled by hotel security guards while wearing a “horrible-looking” rabbit suit to protest animal testing. She soon observed that, no matter the depth of one’s passion, returning vitriol for vitriol was bad strategy. (“Not only did it wreck me physically and mentally, it made people stand taller in their positions, since it gave them something to legitimately have a problem with: the angry, screaming protesters themselves.”)
Indeed, Brown’s informed critique of animal industries and the relations between humans and other species is achieved with a compelling lack of snideness. But let no one mistake her kindness for weakness. She’s clear-eyed and definite about the many evils of the situation, and describes the ordeals faced by food animals in stomach-turning detail, juxtaposing them with anecdotes about how the more fortunate individuals at her sanctuary charm the socks off their human visitors, all framed within the story of an adventurous life well lived.
Society may well deserve to be scolded for its many crimes against the less fortunate, but strident lectures only increase the polarization that’s doing us all in. Brown and co-author Primack take the high road, showing rather than telling, and the results engage and challenge on a level that no amount of dramatic bluster ever will. And should readers want to learn more about Jenny Brown and her work—or perhaps simply to meet a turkey named Alphonso in person—the drama continues to unfold right here in our own backyard. Book launch 8/26 at 5pm, Kleinert/James Arts Center, Woodstock, sponsored by the Golden Notebook.