Last year I bought a book called ‘The Discursive Mind’, which argued that the difference between humans and animals is, essentially, the ability to communicate. In parts, it talked about the experiments done with sign language and chimps in the 70’s, and the difference between speech and communication. While it was a fantastic book, and challenged me to really think, ‘Half Brother’ asked me to do the same kind of thinking, without the need for ‘expert language’, wrapped in a story that progressively asks harder and harder questions.
Half Brother worried me for a start. I felt the title was …well… twee. I worried that it would be yet another story about the special love between a boy and his pet, that ended happily ever after. I really worried that the parents were too two dimensional, and stereotypical. I worried that we would get so caught up in the adolescent relationship thing that it would become a boy meets girl, boy learns to be in the right group, kind of story. I worried that Mom would never complete her PhD. I worried that Peter would lead Ben astray. I worried so much, I couldn’t put the book down. Most of all I kept worrying for Zan. It seemed to become less and less likely that there could be any kind of solution for Zan that was believable, ethical, hopeful or humane.
Ben is an only child. He is 13 years old. His father is a researcher, in behavioural science, in the 1970s. Which, of course, should ring some alarm bells. Mom is also a researcher, but has put aside her study for now, or at least is trying to work it around family and all. One day, Ben’s parents bring home Zan, an eight day old chimpanzee.
And I have to say, that despite all my maternal worrying for everyone and everything in the book, it grew up, and walked and talked and learned and ended in the most satisfying way it could; a finely tuned orchestration of events that didn’t excuse wrong decisions, but did pay some kind of recompense, imperfectly, as it is in real life.
I highly recommend this book. It has so much to it that it deserves more than one read. And it deserves a bit of background reading to learn about the behavioural scientists it talks about, animal experimentation, and chimpanzees. Also, gender equality! 😉
For some information on the kind of research Ben’s father was undertaking, go here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/24/can-chimps-converse-exchange/?pagination=false
To learn more about Kenneth Oppel, the writer, go here: http://www.kennethoppel.ca/pages/biography.shtml