I approach a Kenneth Oppel book with something akin to hero worship. With good reason. EVERY story he writes is different, his voice changes, and each is better than the last. I am an unapologetic fan, and cannot wait to read everything that flows from his pen. My reviews could all be “he wrote it, you read it.”
Half Brother follows this pattern of excellence. 13 year old Ben is moved across the country from Toronto to Victoria, where his research scientist parents adopt Zan, an eight day old chimpanzee they plan to raise as a human. He becomes Ben’s baby brother, and is dressed in clothes, fed human food, given books and toys, and observed 24 hours a day. Can he be taught language? Can he live as a human? Every milestone and action is recorded by a team of research assistants from the University.
What could go wrong?
At first, Ben resists the chimp, and refuses to participate in the experiment. His parents have turned his world upside down, he misses his friends, he goes to a school he doesn’t like, and it just isn’t going to happen. In other words, he’s a 13 year old boy. But over time, he falls in love with Zan, protects and cares for him. Right around the time his father starts to believe that the whole plan is not such a good idea.
Set in the early 1970s, the story explores the controversy and ethics of chimpanzee research and animal testing. But it is not an animal rights platform. Or, at least, not only. It is, at heart, a story about what makes a family. Is it blood? Language? Species? Or maybe it is just love.
As with every Oppel novel, the characters are authentic. Central to the theme of language, there is constant dialogue throughout the story, rather than description, which allows the characters to develop naturally, and adds to their realism. Ben’s relationship with his mother, his relationship with his father, and the one he develops with his “brother”, Zan, are all carefully crafted through their everyday conversations and recording of Zan’s progress.
Ben’s father and he clash constantly over the raising of Zan. Ben treats him as one of the family, while his scientist father uses harsher methods, demands obedience, and has a very disconnected, clinical view of the chimp.
Zan learns dozens of sign language words, but does he understand the language, or just mimic what he sees? The very topic of chimp/human understanding was at the centre of the research at the time.
As Zan gets older and stronger, the humans around him see both the best and the worst of chimpanzee behaviour. His maturation introduces new complexities into the relationships, and Ben’s own maturity must also keep pace as new ethical concerns arise. What is best for Zan, and at what expense?
Fast-paced and well-researched, the attention to detail brings back memories for those of a certain age. As a kid in the seventies, I did spend my days on my bike, my friends and I played in the woods and fields behind our house, did the dishes in the sink (while dancing to ABBA and the Bay City Rollers), and dreamed of owning a colour tv (didn’t happen).
This book is appropriate for all teens, animal lovers, and anyone who needs a good cry. Can it have a happy ending?
Half Brother was published January 2010 by HarperTrophy.