BOOK REVIEW: Half Brother

Half Brother

Half Brother is another winner for the YA shelf. Set in the early 1970s, the book explores what happens when a scientist brings home a baby chimpanzee as part of a groundbreaking linguistics experiment. The idea is, in effect, to make the chimp believe he is human and communicate with people using American Sign Language. But while the scientist sees Zan the chimp as mainly a test subject, his 13-year-old son, Ben, begins to look at Zan as a friend and brother. When the experiment concludes, the question of what will happen to Zan makes for the novel’s most gripping and emotional moments.

Oppel shines when he wrestles with the tough questions about animal ethics that invariably arise from the situation. We see questioning of what it means to be a person and notion of “person” as human construct. Such deep thoughts are rare in adult novels, let alone YA. And while the philosophy goes above and beyond most in the “animal in peril” genre, Oppel’s characters still don’t go all the way in extending their circle of concern. Zan’s human friends continue to eat meat, for example, even while plotting ways to save the chimp’s life. In this sense Brother hearkens back to Charlotte’s Web and other stories that are more about saving one special animal—or one special species—than all animals in general.

Another strong point is Oppel’s weaving of time and place—the atmosphere of the early ‘70s. However, there are some anachronisms which will be recognizable to animal advocate readers. First off, there is a character who is repeatedly referred to as an “animal rights activist.” Was that a common term in the 1970s? (Perhaps some older activists can shed some light on this for me.) There is discussion of “The Thurston Foundation,” a biomedical lab that is infamous for its inhumane treatment of chimps. This is an obvious reference to the Coulston Foundation, which was eventually shut down by the USDA for its negligence. Problem is, the Coulston Foundation didn’t open until 1993. Then there is also a facility in the book based on Florida’s Save the Chimps, which unfortunately didn’t come into existence until 1997.

If Brother receives the wide attention it should, I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t end up on the American Library Association’s list of challenged books at some point. Ben’s teenage infatuation drives the subplot, and there is some mild suggestiveness, as well as a smattering of curse words. It’s a shame this will no doubt drive some to attack the novel.

Overall, Oppel has presented us with a wonderful novel that raises some important questions, as well as a fine resource for humane education recommendations.



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