It’s 1973, and Ben’s parents have decided to move across the country, from Toronto to Victoria, so they can begin a huge new experiment. Not long after they arrive in Victoria, Ben’s mother comes home with a baby chimp wrapped in a blanket. Ben’s parents are both scientists, and they want to try to teach this chimp to use sign language and, ultimately, to live as a human.
Ben is reluctant at first, but as he spends more time with the chimp (who they call Zan, as in short for Tarzan), he begins to feel affection and even love. Ben’s parents encourage him to look at Zan as one of the family, and after a while Ben considers Zan to be his little brother.
And that’s why, when Zan’s future suddenly becomes uncertain, and Ben’s father shows that he is not on the same page as the rest of his family when it comes to Zan’s role in their lives, Ben will do anything to save him.
When my coworker Lynn told me about this book, I was really interested because just this summer I heard the story of the real-life experiment that this novel seems to be based on – a chimp called Lucy who was raised by Dr. Maurice Temerlin and his family as a human. She learned sign language, wore clothes, made tea, and ate with silverware. As she grew towards adulthood, however, her physical strength became too much for the family to handle and she was released with a number of other chimps on a an island in Gambia to live out her life. The story was incredible. I first heard about it on a podcast called Radiolab – the episode is here if you’re interested in hearing about it or seeing photos of Lucy.
Kenneth Oppel’s book is good and Ben’s character is really charming and believable, but I wasn’t satisfied by the ending (on which I’ll let you form your own opinion!). And if you find the premise interesting, do check out Lucy’s story too.
by Kenneth Oppel
“This is how we got Zan. He was eight days old and his mother was holding him, nursing him.”