Book review: “Funny Farm”

Were you born in a barn?

In other words, get in here and shut the door. Take your dirty shoes off before you walk on the clean floor. You might call your cat your “baby” and your dog is your “best friend” but really, were you born in a barn? In the new book “Funny Farm” by Laurie Zaleski, the answer might be maybe…

The last time was different. 

Laurie Zaleski’s mother had uprooted the family before but in the past, they’d always returned to the beautiful house at 8 Timber Heights Court, between Philadelphia and New Jersey.

That was the house where Zaleski spent her first five years of life. It was also where her father physically abused her mother until promises to stop didn’t work anymore, and twenty-six-year-old Annie scooped up her three children, drove around awhile to throw her husband off the trail, and then brought the kids to a “shell,” as Zaleski says. Made of cement blocks, rotten wood, and mold, their new home was a one-bedroom, no-bath, no-heat, no-running-water hovel that Annie promised could be “cozy” with some work. 

Eventually, it was. It became a home before Zaleski was a teen – a home for children and dozens of animals that Annie seemed to collect.

She could never say “no” to any creature in need, in fact, and that was okay with her kids. Caring for animals and troubled friends taught responsibility. Making them safe taught self-sufficiency. Pet death taught realities and that food sometimes came first. Annie, blunt and no-nonsense, worked several jobs to make ends meet – something that embarrassed Zaleski as a teenager – but there was always room for another. The family was poor, but hers was a glorious childhood.

And then, just before she was able to enjoy an empty nest, Annie Zaleski fell sick. Her children worried about her, but she said she was fine. Healthy as a horse. 

“We couldn’t have dreamed that this time,” says Zaleski, “our mother, the most truthful of women, was a liar.”

Cute as a cuddly bunny, but with the kind of kick that only a mule can deliver, “Funny Farm” is the sort of book you want to read and be charmed. 

Here, readers are treated to a dual memoir – one that is mostly about two farms and the animals on them: a big horse that was “pure love,” a peacock’s miracle, pigs big and small, dogs and a chicken that thinks she’s a dog. The other part is a love letter to a mother’s strength, as author Laurie Zaleski writes about a childhood spent in an unconventional household that was first created out of necessity and then out of joy. The telling of this tale of humor, Mom-isms, love, and anguish also gives readers room to think about how awesome their own mothers are.

Come to this book on either side, human or animal, and let yourself be delighted. Find it for the critters, love it for the people you’ll meet, “Funny Farm” will make any reader purr.

“Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals” by Laurie Zaleski

c.2021, St. Martin’s Press $27.99 256 pages