Summary: Following the death of his father in a foreign country where he was working as an anthropologist, Percy takes on the eyes of his father and begins to see his fellow high school students from an anthropological perspective. His unique view is shared by his friend Elissa but takes on a maniacal edge as the year anniversary of his best friend’s suicide passes right before they are set to graduate. No longer able to connect with people on a human level, Percy’s disconnection has him frantically writing papers to chronicle his observations and passing up opportunities for friendship and romance along the way. When graduation comes and one of Percy’s truths is revealed as a lie, Percy is faced with having re-evaluate the past three years of his life.
Number of Pages: 134
Age Range: 15-17
Review: The last sentence in Arthur Slade’s Tribes reads: “So much passes through us without our ever noticing.”
But this is not the story of the unobserved. Instead, Percy’s story is about critically observing and documenting the behaviours of the students he attends high school with, as well as the other people in his life. Looking for meaning and purpose behind those behaviours, Percy’s voice is witty at times, as well as incisive and logical. He’s trying so hard to make sense of the world around him, finding it tremendously difficult to step out of his observer role and just be a teenager.
At first Percy seems stuck up and detached, but Slade reveals Percy has had to deal with the death of his father, and also the suicidal death of his best friend Will. Suddenly what started out as an unsympathetic character becomes a bit relatable, with Percy’s actions now being viewed in the hue of grief.
Slade doesn’t leave it there though. There’s one more surprise and it changes the whole book. What is up becomes down with this new revelation, and I was quite dissatisfied as Slade addresses this dramatic turn with a visit to a sweat lodge and a high school counsellor.
I still like the book though. Maybe the ending wasn’t strong, but the motivation for Percy’s character up until that point becomes clear in an instant, requiring a re-examination of the story and the signs along the way. I loved Percy’s observations and comparisons, and battle of the minds he has with the Christian students.
Tribes is a unique story in some ways, but in others it is heartbreakingly familiar. Because when it all comes down to it, Percy is just another person looking to explain the pain in his life and prevent more from happening to him. His solution to solving that problem is what sets him apart.
“This camp grew especially fecund, attracting sufficient hominids to include one motivated biped who convinced the others to build a high school.
Truly, it was the first backward step in 3.5 million years. The second was the invention of football teams.” – from Tribes by Arthur Slade, pages 5-6
I reached down, patted Fang’s head. He rolled over and I scratched his belly. Thousands of years ago one of our ancestors took a wild wolf pup home and tamed it. Soon all the hunter-gather wanted one. Now here I was stroking a genetic parody of that wolf.” – Percy from Tribes by Arthur Slade, page 59
“I concocted a meal of sprouts and seaweed. While masticating, I pondered Darwin’s life. In 1831, at the age of twenty-two, he embarked on H.M.S Beagle. For the next five years he studied animals, bugs, seeds and stones in South America, concentration on the Galápagos Islands. From his observations he came up with the theory of natural selection. It took him twenty years to complete his first book on the topic.
I didn’t have that kind of time. I wanted to understand now. To see the answer. To have that elusive eureka moment.” – Percy from Tribes by Arthur Slade, pages 66-67