Alan's Reviews > Half Brother

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
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's review
Mar 09, 2011

liked it
Recommended to Alan by: Olivia
Recommended for: Young minds with an interest in animal intelligence and animal rights
Read in March, 2011 , read count: 1

Drawing liberally on real-life research into simian intelligence and language acquisition, this fictionalized take on Washoe the chimpanzee's life may be targeted at adolescent readers, perhaps, but it's a quick and enjoyable read for anyone who, say, likes Robert Sawyer but wants something lighter. I finished it in a single day, though it took me awhile longer to decide what to say about it.

The book as it stands has at least one significant flaw: I searched in vain for any foreword, afterword, bibliographic reference or even dust jacket footnote acknowledging the source for so much of the narrative, or pointing interested readers to further information. Kenneth Oppel himself is quite open about the origins of this story, so I think it must just have been a missed opportunity on Scholastic Press's part (at least for this edition; other editions may have corrected this issue). Any way you look at it, though, it's a real shame that Half Brother could not give its audience more of a clue about its story's historical basis.

Ben Tomlin is our 13-year-old narrator for Half Brother. Ben's father Richard is a Canadian behavioral psychologist, an aloof and intensely dedicated scientist (possibly fairly far along on the spectrum of autistic behavior himself), who takes his family from Toronto to Victoria, British Columbia, in order to pursue grant money for his grand project: adopting a chimpanzee—here called Zan—and raising it in a human environment, to see whether it can learn American Sign Language (ASL).

Ben's a good choice for a viewpoint character, even if this book were not targeted specifically to kids his age. His inexperience explains, for example, why the book starts out with no hint of reflection about the ethics of proving simian intelligence by abducting a baby chimp from its mother to raise it with a human family.

Ethical considerations definitely come in later, though, as Zan's integration into the Tomlin family proceeds and the project attracts various kinds of media attention. Ben falls for the little guy pretty quickly, and soon comes to consider him as a full-fledged family member. His mother, a researcher in her own right, also finds Zan easy to treat in motherly ways. Dr. Richard Tomlin, though, never seems to see Zan as anything but an experimental subject. This conflict provides much of the tension, especially when a couple of setbacks lead to the project being cancelled altogether. How the Tomlins deal with the loss of Zan to a rather more old-fashioned animal center in Nevada drives the rest of the novel.

I first thought that Half Brother had a whiff of the "trunk novel" about it... Ben has phonograph records and a photographic darkroom, but no cellphone and no computer, for example, and his mother is a 34-year-old who dresses in bell bottoms and Native American jewelry. That's just because the novel is set explicitly in 1973, though, as becomes clear later on. As Oppel mentions in the above-linked talk about the book, he didn't start writing it until after Washoe's death in 2007.

The bottom line on this one: it's probably not going to have the impact that Peter Singer's Animal Liberation did back in 1975, but then it's not intended for the same audience. I think Half Brother is a good conversation-starter about animal research for younger readers—as long as you keep some supplemental material on-hand to flesh it out.
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