There is something particularly poignant in the plight of captive primates. Yet their similarity to us has never guaranteed them our compassion or respect - especially our closest relatives, chimpanzees. Mostly, we view them as human surrogates for cognitive studies, aeronautical experiments, invasive medical research and drug-testing, which we undertake solely for our benefit but would flinch from inflicting on ourselves. That's when we're not dressing these animals up as humans and laughing as they "ape" us in the circus ring or on TV.
Indeed, apart from the fortunate few who still live unmolested in the wild, chimpanzees inhabit a uniquely tragic in-between realm neither human nor strictly animal. Clearly, Kenneth Oppel gets that, right from the title of his latest young-adult novel, Half Brother, to the sober-sweet conclusion.
In previous works, such as the Silverwing and Matt Cruse series, Oppel has specialized in creating alternative realities for humans and animals. Half Brother, however, is set in a factually correct recreation of the early 1970s and modelled on real-life events. Nim Chimpsky was a chimpanzee raised from infancy in a human household and taught American Sign Language. The hope was that treating him like a human and giving him means to communicate with humans would determine that a non-human could acquire and employ language meaningfully. Ultimately, Project Nim was deemed a failure, and the poor chimp, stripped of his human clothes and celebrity status, was nearly sold to a research lab before animal advocates intervened to get him to a sanctuary.
Like Nim, Oppel's fictional ape, Zan, comes to his human family as an infant, slated to be treated like a new baby. Unlike Nim, Zan is lucky that one member of his household becomes aware of how equivocal, perilous and ultimately untenable the position of a half-brother "adopted" for experimental purposes can be.
Ben Tomlin, our teenage narrator, is an only child initially upset because his father uprooted the family from Toronto to take up a university teaching and research post in Victoria. Rapidly, Ben's upset turns to dismay when his mother (her husband's research assistant) arrives at their new home with a week-old baby chimpanzee in her arms. With no more prior consultation than the animal himself received, Ben is expected to accept Zan as a sibling and to participate in the experiment of raising him and teaching him to sign.
Ben comes to love Zan and to view him as a fellow resister of adult tyranny. As both young males develop, Oppel draws comparisons between the means each finds to assert individuality and oppose authority. Ben adopts the posture of a "dominant male" in order to survive at his new school, as well as cope with his controlling father. Meanwhile, Zan begins to bristle, bare teeth and lash out when thwarted or challenged.
Despite his father's scientific assertions and his mother's tortured rationales, it's clear to Ben that the chimp isn't actually being treated like a human - not when he's kept in a basement suite, drilled in ASL by brigades of grad students and strapped into a restraining chair if he misbehaves. It also becomes apparent that none of this is being done for the animal's benefit. When Project Zan is shut down - for more or less the same reasons as real-life Project Nim - Ben is threatened with losing Zan to a prison-like primate facility.
Ben's dilemma comes to parallel Jody's in the classic novel The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Like Jody, Ben must deal with a cuddly baby creature turned destructive adolescent, no longer able to be returned to the wild, yet no longer capable of being controlled like a domestic animal.
Oppel explores the limited options available, from the brutalities of research, to the exploitations of zoos, to the comparative humaneness of a primate sanctuary. Without ever becoming preachy, he makes the point that the initial dislocation of Zan and other members of wild species cannot ever lead to truly good outcomes.
Half Brother is fast-moving, engagingly told and smart. I hope today's teen readers won't be put off by its antediluvian setting in a period pre-text messages,
Facebook and cellphones, with a soundtrack by ABBA and Elton John. Actually, not much has changed for apes in North American research facilities over the past four decades, and, come to think of it, ABBA and Elton are still with us, along with Planet of the Apes movies and heated debates on animal rights.
Beyond Ben's unique preoccupation with Zan, Oppel takes pains to give his protagonist more typically adolescent concerns. As an adult, I confess I found the teenage-angst aspects of the novel fairly run-of-the-mill. That might be the limitation of a young narrator's perspective on his own standard-issue anxieties - as compared to his vivid accounts of his extraordinary relationship with an animal through sign language.
Ultimately, this novel is about much more than an abandoned experiment in interspecies communication. Through Ben, Oppel gracefully underscores the true value in reaching Zan: Not to profit from teaching him to perform tasks, but to grasp the world as a non-human perceives it.
Erika Ritter is the author most recently of The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, now available in paperback.