Summary: When his mother comes home with a baby chimpanzee for his father’s university experiment, Ben has his doubts. Hoping to determine if chimpanzees are able to be taught language through using American Sign Language, Zan moves in with them and everyone except Ben’s father find themselves growing attached to him. The problem is while Zan is being raised like a human, he is still a chimp, and after they lose an opportunity for a major grant the whole project is in jeopardy. Ben and his mother struggle to keep Zan with them no matter what, but since he is owned by the university there’s little they can do when he is sold to a ranch in Nevada. Family is family though, and Ben and his mother refuse to let their involvement with Zan end there, especially when he has some trouble fitting in.
Number of Pages: 377
Age Range: 12-14
Review: In a stunning examination of what the concept of family truly means, author Kenneth Oppel takes the story of Ben, a regular thirteen year-old teen boy in a unique situation. His brother, Zan, is a chimpanzee.
And no, it’s not science fiction. Ben’s mother is doing a PhD dissertation and his father is a university professor. Living during the 1970s, both are interested exploring whether chimpanzees have the ability to learn language. So Ben’s father devises an experiment wherein a baby chimpanzee will come and live with them to learn sign language from the beginning.
I love how Oppel’s book is such a stimulating read. The story of Ben and his ‘half brother’ Zan has an element of historical fiction, touches on the perceptions of animal cruelty in society, and probes the nature of connection between family members who aren’t related by blood and aren’t even the same species.
Most of all though, there were two specific aspects of Half Brother I particularly enjoyed. The first is the juxtaposition Oppel creates between the behaviour of Zan and the other chimpanzees and the behaviour of Ben’s father and other human alpha males in the story. Although humans are supposed to be further evolved than chimpanzees, Oppel is making the point that we are more alike than humans want to believe. It’s not just in our DNA, it’s in our behaviour as well.
The second is how everyone fails to anticipate the potential consequences of the experiment itself. Ben’s father is wrapped up in the glory of it all, and when people question his methods and results, he doesn’t hesitate to dump the study. It’s too late though, people are attached, Zan himself is a sort of hybrid chimp/human as nature battles nurture, and Ben feels personal responsibility for Zan because he sees him as his little brother. The results of the study reveal more than Ben’s father ever anticipated, although I have my doubts that he will ever see it as more than a failed experiment.
It’s a book I already want to put on my re-read list because there’s a lot going in it and I’m sure I haven’t caught it all. Ben and Zan are vibrant characters, and I loved their connection. I have no doubt in my mind that Zan did learn language in the traditional sense and returned the feelings of love from Ben and his mother. Oppel has presented me with several new ideas through his book, and I will relish pondering them over the next few days.
“I was suspicious right way. I knew the whole thing was cooked up to distract me – like giving someone a handful of Smarties on a crashing plane. But Dad was a really good talker. When he was enthusiastic, you got enthusiastic. He made you feel like you were the only person in the world, and he was sharing these things with you alone.” – Ben from Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, page 5
“It wasn’t Dad’s style to come right out and say he was disappointed or angry. It was some kind of psychologist thing, I guessed. He wanted to know how I felt about the marks – as if self-improving exercise. He wanted me to look deep into myself and make the startling discovery that my marks were crap, that I’d messed up, and that I needed to try harder next time.” – Ben from Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, page 125
“Part of me wanted Zan to perform, because I was suddenly scared that if he didn’t, Dad might punish him. Make him sit in the chair all morning, or go without lunch.
And the other part of me was full of admiration. Zan could talk, but he was choosing not to.
He was saying he didn’t feel like it. He was saying no.
He was giving my father the finger.
I wished I had Zan’s courage.” – Ben from Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, page 130
“I could hear the aggression now in both their voices. It was like being back in the chimp house and seeing two males face off. In a colony there was only one alpha male, but here there were two. I could almost smell their pheromones, transmitting themselves over the phone lines. I had no idea what would happen next, but I saw defeat for Dad.” – Ben from Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, page 352