Thursday, April 25, 2013

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel


Ben's new brother is a baby chimp named Zan. Ben's parents are scientists, and Zan is part of an experiment to see if chimps can learn language by signing. From the beginning, Ben is told that Zan will be treated like one of the family (with his own clothes, bed, books and toys). At first Ben is not thrilled, but he quickly bonds with Zan and becomes a trusted member of his inner circle.

Ben becomes one of Zan's main teachers and eventually is made part of the research project working alongside grad students. He takes care of Zan and plays with him as if he were his baby brother. He changes his diaper, dresses him and feeds him. They share books, hugs and tickles.

Ben's family has moved across the country to Vancouver for his dad's new job (at the only university that would give this experiment serious consideration). This means a new school and new friends. The first young people he meets attend the public school and get Ben into some trouble. The next ones are the children of his father's boss and attend a private school. Ben immediately falls for the daughter, Jennifer. Taking inspiration from the experiment, Ben starts a log of Jennifer's interests. He also records strategies for getting her to like him. Of course this is naive, but it provides one of my favorite sentences from the book: "If I could teach a chimp sign language, I could probably teach Jennifer Godwin to fall for me."

As the experiment progresses, Ben's relationship with his father is tested. While Ben grows to truly care for Zan and think of him as a brother, his father shows little interest in Zan's feelings. It is obvious that his father is not bonding with Zan and only thinks of the chimp as a specimen. Ben questions some of his father's decisions about how Zan is treated, leading to some heated discussions.

The ultimate problem in all of this is that Zan is not human. He is being raised as a human child, but cannot suppress his natural instincts. He acts out when he is frustrated. On a few occasions, he bites people. As he grows, he transforms from a cute baby to a strong, potentially fierce creature capable of seriously injuring someone. He is trapped between his life in a household of people and his inescapable chimpanzee nature.

This story is complex mix of normal teen issues and animal science. In one chapter, Ben is dealing with the thrill of kissing a girl for the first time and the next he is discussing animal rights with a grad student. His notoriety at school rises when he is in Time Magazine, but falls when he does something bad at a school dance. It's a fascinating story where you root for Zan and Ben to find what is best for them.

For more info about this book, check out the Evergreen Library catalog and the author's site.



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