In the early 1970s, Ben’s parents are at the cutting edge of behavioral animal research. When Ben’s father, Dr. Richard Tomlin, gets an appointment at a university that supports his proposed project for teaching American Sign Language to a chimpanzee, he moves his wife Sarah and 14 year-old son across Canada from Toronto to Victoria. Ben is not too excited about this, nor is he thrilled when his mother brings home an 8-day-old chimpanzee that Ben sees as ugly. They name the chimp Zan (after Tarzan). While Richard will be using graduate students to teach Zan ASL, Sarah will be raising Zan as a human child as she writes a dissertation on cross-fostering. Ben is expected to help with Zan’s care and to see the chimpanzee as his brother. His reluctance soon wears off in the face of Zan’s undeniable charm.
At first the experiments seem to go well with Zan. He masters about 65 ASL words, but there is some debate as to whether he really comprehends the language or if he is just mimicking what he sees. Ben’s father tries harsh techniques while teaching Zan, including tethering him to a highchair for hours at a time. Tensions quickly arise between the father, who sees Zan as a test subject, and the son, who believes that it is his responsibility to protect his little brother. Ben struggles with the ethical and moral issues surrounding his father’s research and worries about what will happen to Zan if the project fails.
Kenneth Oppel’s novel is incredibly well researched. He draws from real-life experiments on simian intelligence, particularly the experiments with Washoe the chimpanzee. He accurately reflects the conflicting attitudes to animal research in the 1970s. Half-Brother will definitely start conversations among young adult readers about the ethics of using animals. Oppel’s novel shows that there is not a simple solution to the problems surrounding animal test subjects. He leaves the reader to form his or her own opinions.
Half-Brother also explores the themes of family, school life and dating. Ben’s tenuous relationship with Richard is fascinating and disheartening. Ben appears to be a constant disappointment to his father. Richard is cold and thoughtless to his family through much of the novel. I was just as interested in how these family dynamics would resolve as I was with what would happen to Zan. Ben’s adjustment to a new school and his desire for the daughter of his father’s boss are equally interesting and believable.
Excellent writing, complex characters, and thought-provoking themes will keep readers engaged from start to finish. Like many of Oppel’s novels, Half-Brother will appeal to a wide audience. I highly recommend this book to grades seven and up.
4.5 out of 5 stars