CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 1. . . .September 3, 2010
Life is tumultuous for 13-year-old Ben Tomlin. He has moved from Ontario to British Columbia and will soon be attending a private school where he'll need to wear a uniform and improve his grades. But nothing in Ben's life compares with the arrival of Zan. Zan is a newborn chimp that Ben's parents - his behavioral psychologist dad and PhD student mom - are raising in a human environment as a part of an experiment to see if Zan will be able to acquire language using American Sign Language (ASL).
If the story sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee born in 1973 and test subject of Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University. Nim lived with a family in New York City for several years after he was born; he had siblings and a surrogate mother who attempted to teach him ASL. Oppel's book, set in the early seventies in Victoria, BC, is not a fictional retelling of Nim Chimpsky's human family experience, though the parallels are unmistakable. Instead, Oppel gives us the story of three years of Ben's life; accepting Zan as his bother; reinventing himself at a new school; struggling for a relationship with his father; and coming to terms with what makes all of us human.
Ben and Zan develop a wonderful sibling relationship: Ben is uncomfortable at first, but as his brotherly love for Zan grows, he becomes one of his closet allies and, ultimately, his greatest champion. Oppel's award-winning ability to write through the eyes of a very believable and relatable character holds true in this novel – mature preteens and teens will relate to Ben, his family and friends. They will cheer when Zan makes his first sign, and they will root for Ben when he falls for the beautiful sister of a new friend. But, what sets this novel apart from other compelling stories, and Oppel's other works, is the fresh perspective it has on the themes of humanity, family, and choice. Readers will be challenged to think about right and wrong, choice and apathy, nature and nurture, and, love and betrayal. Half Brother began its journey into the hands of readers with a very interesting galley tour: copies of the pre-published book were sent out to Oppel fans and others who were encouraged to add personal notes, photos or artwork and then share the book with a friend, colleague or family member. Once the book has been through the hands of 10 readers, it will be sent back to HarperCollins Canada, and they will share the discoveries. Hopefully, the galleys will travel on journeys as exciting and enlightening as the one Oppel takes readers on in Half Brother.
Beth Maddigan is a children's librarian and instructor in St. John's, NL.
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