Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2010
I'm a fan of Kenneth Oppel's fantasy series Airborn, so I was curious to read his new realistic fiction novel. The cover shows a typical stick figure family, Dad, Mom, Son and then an outline of a chimp. When I first picked it up I thought maybe there would be a little Eva-action (Peter Dickinson) with some sci-fi, but this is purely realistic.
Ben Tomlin is celebrating his 13th birthday by leaving all of his friends behind and moving to a new house and new school because his father got a new job at a university. There was nothing wrong with his old job except they wouldn't buy him a chimp but his new job comes with his very own chimp. Ben's dad is a behavioral scientist and wants to teach sign language to the chimp, radical thinking back in 1973. Ben's mom picks up the 8 day old baby chimp and brings him home swaddled like a baby. The plan is that they will raise the chimpanzee as a human, treat him like a son, and see if he will communicate with sign language. They tell Ben to treat the chimp like he's a little brother and not a pet and although he's reluctant at first he very quickly falls in love with "Zan." Unfortunately although Ben's dad teaches Zan to call him "Dad" he doesn't actually behave like one and all too soon Ben must choose between his father's scientific process and the brother-chimp he has grown to love.
Do not read this book without a box of tissues close by. Oppel is superb at pulling on one's tender heartstrings as we too begin to see Zan as more than just a chimp, more than an animal test subject, more than a project. We fall in love with Zan as Ben does and when the inevitable separation comes it hurts us as much as it hurts Ben. Ben is an angry young kid, but he has every reason to be. His father is distant and critical, not showing any affection for Ben or Zan unless they are doing something academically smart. He uproots their lives for this project but then leaves the actual care of Zan to Ben's mom and Ben. He is the image of an absentee-dad for both Ben and Zan and it's no wonder that the project "fails" in his eyes.
As angry as Ben is, he is also naive. But it's not entirely his fault. His parents never consulted him about the project, never asked his opinion or how he would feel about treating Zan as a brother. They just told him to do it. And then when he does and he loves his brother--because that's what brothers do--his father tells him he is too attached and not scientific enough. Ben believes that Zan is his brother and they will always have him in their lives, but Zan is NOT his brother. Zan is just a baby chimp who should be living with other chimps.
Half Brother is a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking story of what defines a family and just how far you go to protect the ones you love. There are side stories of Ben's school troubles and girl troubles, but the crux of the story is the project with Zan. It's definitely worth the crumpled pile of tissues you'll have sitting next to you on the couch.
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