Feeling a Little Sheepish?

three-bags-fullExpecting a cozy, comic mystery, I found a wolf of a book in sheep’s clothing.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann poses as a crime novel, told from the perspective–here’s the kicker–of a flock of sheep. As a mystery, it’s OK–the crime is slowly unveiled more than truly solved–but if you’re reading this for the mystery, you’re only grazing the surface of the meadow.

When shepherd George is killed, seemingly run through with a spade, it becomes clear that ugliness lurks beneath the bucolic surface of little Glenkill, Ireland. Most shocked are his flock, who are forced to acknowledge that there is much more to life than munching grass.

The flock knows something about stories, as George read aloud in the evenings. Led by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glenkill (smart enough to steer clear of the annual Smartest Sheep in Glenkill contest), they begin to search for the killer so that they can preserve their way of life.

Readers might appreciate this book as a commentary on the ways of sheep, and that it is, but again, if that’s all you get out of it, then Swann has pulled the wool over your eyes. More than anything, Three Bags Full is a seriocomic commentary on human behavior. Through sheep’s eyes, we see where our behavior is baffling, bizarre, and sometimes contradictory.

If your group tries this book, ask each reader to identify her or his favorite and least favorite sheep. There’s a flock of great characters from which  to choose. Besides Miss Maple, there’ s Richfield, the sometimes clear, sometimes fogged over lead ram. Heather is a dim creature who speaks every thoughts aloud. Mopple the Whale takes in everything, eating more than any sheep in the flock, but also serving as the official “memory” sheep whose job is to remember the flock’s collective experience. Othello is the flock’s actual black sheep, a ram of a different breed with a cruel circus background, a little braver, but more of a loner than the rest. Zora’s philosophical bent leaves her looking into the abyss, longing to join the cloud sheep in the sky. Then there’s Melmoth, the former lead ram who broke the main sheep rule: Never leave the flock.

As these sheep and others try to protect their meadow and occasionally investigate in the village, they wreak havoc on a host of sometimes sinister, sometimes silly human characters. As your group discusses the book, compare the sheep’s philosophical point of view on various issues to that of humans.

This is a testimony to the power of a group. In the end, nearly every sheep’s special skill is needed to find and reveal the killer (which hopefully is a nice metaphor for how your book group functions, but not with the killer part). So go ahead and take the lead: Three Bags Full is much more than a cute, cozy mystery, it’s a wooly mammoth of a yarn. If you have to, ram it down their throats. They’ll thank ewe later.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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