Finished: Sept. 26, 2010
First Published: Aug. 16, 2010 CAN (Sept. 1 USA)
Publisher: Harper Collins Canada
Genre: YA, realistic fiction
This is how we got Zan.
Acquired: Received a review copy from the publisher.
Reason for Reading: Oppel is my favourite YA author and I read every new book he publishes.
This book is something completely different from Oppel's usual fare and I must admit I was a little leery going in, hoping this wasn't going to end up being a platform for animal rights. I need not have worried; Oppel is an accomplished writer and a reader can be confident that he is going to produce a well-crafted novel that will keep one glued to one's seat.
I read this book in one sitting, I was that taken with it. It's a far cry from my usual reading fare as well and I found it fascinating. Ben's father is a scientist and his mother also, though she is still writing her PhD dissertation. The father has a Project where he is to bring a baby chimp into the household and along with a staff of his students raise the chimp as a human, all the while seeing if they can teach the chimp, Zan, to learn American Sign Language and fully communicate with them. At first Ben's not so crazy about Zan, after all they had to move from Toronto to B.C. for his father to work at this new University, but it doesn't take long until Ben and Zan are bosom buddies and more than that, brothers in a real sense.
But the Project isn't proceeding fast enough, they are denied the big grant they expected, the University wants more results and soon Ben is fighting for Zan's place in their family and he must risk it all to save Zan from a future worse than death.
An incredibly intriguing story. The characters themselves add such tension to the story, the family dynamics shape the conflicts. The dad is stoically scientific, even towards his own son, emotions are not one of his good points, though we pick up clues as to what shaped this man. The mother, though also scientific, is naturally maternal, has a great relationship with her son, and her maternalism flows over to baby Zan. Ben, is thirteen when the story starts and has a whole other side story going on about school, friends and girls (especially). This is also a coming-of-age story for him and there is one particularly interesting thing about his and Zan's development. Zan obviously becomes humanized, mimics the humans and considers himself human but we also see in some ways that Zan's natural chimp behaviour is brushing off on Ben, who has been reading a lot about chimps since Zan's arrival. While Ben plays Alpha-male at school to win friends, popularity and girls, it isn't until an instant when he becomes furiously angry with his father that we see Ben turn chimp.
This story is full of humorous escapades created by Zan and others' reactions to him. But this is also a serious story that deals with the ethical treatment of animals. Right from the beginning of the book there are a couple of hints that the story is not taking place in the here and now and eventually we learn that Zan's story is taking place some 30 years in the past. This opens up a world of science that did not have the same ethics as we do today when it comes to using animals in experiments. Oppel does not go all "activist" on us but instead introduces the reader to various practices going on at the time and the scientific reasoning behind the ethics of such experimentation. Then he shows the various types and forms of protest to this treatment and with that goes further to say it was not all in the name of science (make-up testing for example).
A well-written, gripping, thought-provoking story, possibly Oppel's greatest book to date. This story may well have some of it's targeted readers looking into animal related careers where they will have a voice in ensuring the ongoing ethical treatment of animals. Myself, after reading this, I feel like sitting down and watching the movie "Gorillas in the Mist" again.