Kenneth Oppel’s HALF BROTHER

I picked up HALF BROTHER yesterday and finished it this morning. I am a big fan of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborne series, and I can tell you that this book is about as different from those books and from his Silverwing books as anything could be. And I loved it.

Writing any book is hard, but I think–in this story–Oppel picked a particularly tough road. Zan is a baby chimpanzee that Ben’s mother and father adopt, with the goal of testing whether a chimp can communicate through language–they set out to teach Zan ASL and see what happens. They also set out to, as much as possible, raise Zan in their family, as if he were Ben’s little brother. (It actually took me a bit to realize that this was a historical story, and I kept wondering why there weren’t any references to Koko, but after a bit I realized the record albums Ben has aren’t vintage, and there was a reason the house has orange-shag carpet in the living room.)

Anyway, maybe because I loved Koko’s story when I was a kid (and adult), I was curious to see what Oppel did with a plot that, as far as I could guess, would need to follow a certain pattern. I’m not giving any spoilers, but for today’s readers, I think, when you bring a baby wild animal into a family home, there are certain things we can probably guess are going to work and things that won’t. (Although, maybe this wouldn’t be true for a kid/teen reader–I’ll see if my son reads the book, what he thinks.) So I wondered how, for me, Oppel would keep up the tension and the feeling of what-next?

I think he did with the characters. He got me so emotionally connected to Ben and Zan and their relationship that I had to keep reading to find out what would happen to them, not just to a boy and an experimental chimpanzee subject. Ben is a fantastic kid, a boy with many normal tween goals, who’s put into a not-so-normal situation. And he responds with warmth and passion and a capacity for love that is beautifully portrayed.

And Zan…oh, Zan. Zan is everything I used to dream of when I thought that maybe, just maybe some day, I could meet Koko or work with dolphins or do some kind of animal behavioral science (in the days before I started hating math, that would be). And, yet, Zan is also so much more. There is some kind of huge irony that, in this story of trying to raise a chimpanzee in a human world, what I feel Oppel has done has reached into the center of who Zan is or could be and found something that I need another word for besides “humanity.” I guess, really, it’s Zan’s individuality, the specific, very unique-personalitied chimpanzee that Zan is. And that Oppel has drawn for us to get to know, really, just as we get to know Ben–page by page, layer by layer.

One thing that Oppel does was absolutely fascinating to me–he gets us very, very close to some of Ben’s physical reactions and responses. Here’s a passage about 3/4 of the way through the book, when Ben loses his temper with his father–for a very justified reason.

The hair on my body rose. I pushed back from the table so sharply the chair fell over with a bang, and the sound was like a trigger. My whole body tensed, ready for fight. I saw Dad’s calm, controlled face, and I went for him, pushing him hard by the shoulders, once, twice, until he stood and tried to grab my arms to stop me. Feeling myself pinned filled me with rage.

There is a reason, I think, that this bit resonates with the feeling of a dominance struggle between two males. There is a reason we feel Ben’s visceral response, as though we’re somehow hooked up to the nerve sensors on his skin, in his spine. Oppel does not write a story in which the chimpanzee becomes less of a chimpanzee, or in which the human boy becomes more of one. He simply presents them to us as they are, both capable of things like love and anger, at the emotional and physical level. He gets as far into Zan’s emotional state as he can, and–on the flip side–gives us the same insight into Ben’s instincts.

And he never makes the story feel contrived or forced or flat. By the time the crisis approached, and it is a crisis, I was tense and worried and frightened, for both Ben and Zan. As much as I had thought I could probably predict the main plot of the book, I was surprised and delighted and crushed by the details and the layers that kept opening up, to the very last page.

At which point, I found myself close to tears. Yeah–the good kind. 🙂

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