Half Brother, by Kenneth Oppel
The cover art on this book gives you a hint of what this book is about but not the depth and variety. It’s an interesting if imperfect book around a Canadian family: a professor father, a mother working on her PhD, and son Ben. It’s the 1970s and Ben is just turning 13. His family is moving across country from Toronto to Victoria so that his behavioral psychologist father can take a position at a new university. Ben and his father make the drive between the two cities and this gives some focus to the somewhat distant relationship between the two.
Shortly after they arrive at their new home, while the movers are still putting things away, Ben’s mother arrives with an eight-day-old chimpanzee bundled in her arms. Ben learns that part of the reason the family has moved is so that his father can pursue a research project concerning language and primates. The father will study whether the chimp can learn American Sign Language (ASL). The 1970s setting would make this still innovative. Koko the gorilla, who learned around 1000 ASL signs, was born in 1971. In fact, many of the scientific challenges and milestones in this book are similar to those faced by Koko and her trainers.
Having the chimp in the household is an unpleasant surprise for Ben despite encouragement from his parents that he think of it as a new brother. As the story continues it describes the growing attachment between Ben and the chimp they end up naming Zan (a shortened version of Tarzan). The father hires assistants from the graduate students at the university and the training begins. But the father begins having problems getting hoped-for grants for much the same reason that some in the scientific community were skeptical of Koko’s accomplishments, preferring to believe it was simply an example of the “Clever Hans” effect. They believe Zan is learning signs simply to get food or attention.
Meanwhile there are story distractions surrounding Ben’s experiences at a new school with new friends, including the sister of a friend with whom he becomes infatuated. I suppose as a YA book this adds some sense of reality but I thought the book would have been cleaner without the two stories running throughout. Eventually Ben becomes the one closest to Zan while his father decides to abandon what was expected to be a 20-year project. What happens to Zan after this and how Ben responds are the key moments of the book.
The book considers quite a few serious topics, including whether we simply anthropomorphize other species or whether they have true consciousness, the treatment of laboratory animals, the dangers of people taking in pets that have so much more strength and unpredictable temperaments, and even the basics of the scientific method and double-blind studies. These made the book unique while the romance made the book just another YA book trying to relate. Still, there are emotional moments between Ben and Zan and the reader is led to root for both characters. The book wasn’t as good as it could have been but an interesting read all the same.