I’ve been reading Kenneth Oppel’s book Half Brother during Reading Race time at school. Reading Race’s are this thing I’m inventing this year to replace student book clubs. I loved book clubs, but my district changed the make-up of my classes this year–apparently the district administration read a study; if you’re a teacher, you know what that can mean–in such a way that I can’t really manage four person book clubs anymore. For Reading Races, every other Friday, we all read for twenty minutes against a countdown clock and then figure out how many pages and words we’ve read. We then write in reading logs which students exchange with a partner and do a few activities what I refuse to give up doing no matter how many studies the district administration reads. (They’ve not passed any of these studies along to me or any of the teaching staff to my knowledge so I can’t really comment on them.)
Reading Races have been much more fun than I expected.
But, I digress, which is sort of what Sunday Salons are for, right?
Half Brother is about a family of scientists who are raising a chimpanzee as a human to see if it can acquire language. Yes, this is the plot of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Jay Fowler’s wonderful novel, one of my top ten favorite reads from last year, but Mr. Oppel’s book came out first. He beats Ms. Fowler by one year. So there.
Mr. Oppel’s book is good. I’ve enjoyed it so far though I prefer his Airborn series. But Half Brother has had a couple of problematic scenes so far.
In the opening of the book, the teen-age narrator describes meeting one of his new neighbors. The narrator’s family has just moved into town, so he’s adjusting. He tells the neighbor boy about the baby chimpanzee his family has while the neighbor boy describes the new pinball machine his family has in the basement. Then the two boys go off to play pinball.
I’m not really buying it. Pinball outdraws monkey? Sure the kid who has the monkey would probably want to see the new pinball machine, but the rest of the neighbors would want to see what the new people have in their house even if they didn’t have a monkey.
It’s 1973, so a pinball machine was a much bigger deal at that time than it would be today, but still. Wouldn’t you have wanted to see the baby monkey. (Chimpanzees are not monkeys, I know, but that’s beside the point here, really.)
Later in the book the narrator arrives home from school to find his mother is nursing the baby monkey.
Read that again if you need to.
I did. I read it three times.
After I got over my fear regarding just how much trouble I could be in for handing this book out to my students because of this scene, I read on to discover that the narrator was not at all fazed by this. The whole scene is over in five or six lines. His mother explains that they want to raise the chimpanzee as a human as much as possible and that chimpanzee babies nurse just like human babies do. But, since the chimpanzee is starting to bite and she can’t produce milk anyway, she’s going to stop. She explains that women can only produce milk after they’ve had a baby.
I was in elementary school in 1973, so maybe things were different for the kids in high school at the time, like the narrator is, but I would have freaked out had I seen my mother nursing my youngest brother. My world was still on the bottle in 1973. People would have reacted, even grown people. She’s nursing a baby monkey and the thing she has to explain to her son is that she’s not actually producing milk.
Half Brother is set in Canada which they say is culturally different from America, but still. I would expect a scene like this one to take up at least a page and a half of reaction and explanation. When John Steinbeck did a similar thing at the close of The Grapes of Wrath it’s a scene with a major impact on the story and one that continues to be controversial to this day. But here the narrator and his mother just moved on with their lives as if teenage boys walked in on cross-species nursing mothers all the time.
Since I have three sets of English/history classes, I had an hour of reading time on Friday. (I still read with the kids they way we were taught to do back in the late 1980’s. I’m glad I wasn’t reading this one to the kids which I was also taught to do in the late 1980’s and still do now and then. If you haven’t noticed, I’m very retro. I consider myself and old-school school-teacher) So I got through 120 pages of Half Brother on Friday. I’m going to finish the book today. In spite of my quibbles with these two scenes, it’s a pretty good book so far. I especially like the scenes where the kids all get together and listen to records in their room. We really did that in 1973, sit around listening to records for hours, trying to figure out what the songs were really about. No pinball machines or baby monkeys needed.
It was fun.