Thirteen year old Ben Tomlin has made an involuntary sacrifice, in the hopes that his parents, scientists, will be able to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee. The experiment begins with the intention of completely humanizing the chimpanzee, aptly named Zan (short for Tarzan) – Ben is told that Zan is to be his younger brother; his mother even breastfeeds the ape. The Tomlin’s treatment of Zan is to be so purely as a child that “he wasn’t allowed to be a chimp. He had to be a human.” (48)
Despite Ben’s initial dislike of the ape, it rapidly becomes apparent that Zan and Ben have the most effect on each other. Ben’s father is too busy designing the experiment to have anything to do with connecting with his chimp son, and though Zan’s mother initially treated the chimp as her own son, she begins to distance herself; her psychology background shining through much more than her role as surrogate mother. Ben is the one who bonds emotionally with Zan, and vice versa; this is shown to have success on Zan’s language acquisition as Ben is the one who initially begins to sign words to the ape, and is the recipient of Zan’s first sign (hug).
[Spoilers begin here.] Soon the Tomlins realize that they do not have the manpower to care for Zan as he really needs, and hire a team of students to work with him during the daytime. Peter, a disheveled hippie, is the most focused and dedicated of any of these teachers, and after Ben helps him cheat through the interview, the two become friends. Dr. Tomlin begins to notice the time Ben has been putting in with his chimp brother, and begins to pay him for the work he does, making Ben an official part of the Project Zan team. Despite this new ‘job,’ however, Ben always thinks of Zan as his little brother, and his payment as more of a babysitter’s fee. Ben connects with his brother so easily that he even writes two essays for school using only the words that Zan has been taught, much to the chagrin of his father and teachers.
As the experiment goes on, Zan’s language acquisition rate steadily increases, his success apparent to everyone but Dr. Tomlin, even when Zan creates his own words, combining signs he already knows to identify foreign objects. The doctor, who still views spending any time with Zan as being “in the trenches,” grows increasingly frustrated with Zan’s lingering animal behaviors (mostly exhibited in tantrums) and brings a new element to the training sessions – the learning chair. The chair is cold steel, with restraints attached for use when Zan’s behavior is “undesirable.” Ben doesn’t realize how torturous the char is for Zan until one day when he is home sick from school, and rescues his brother from the restraints. At this point it has become unavoidably obvious to Ben that his father never had the intention of treating Zan as a human.
Four days after Christmas, the news comes – Project Zan is officially being shut down, and Ben’s little brother has been sold to another lab, and Ben will probably never see him again.
[Spoilers end.] Ethical questions are raised all throughout this gripping novel, forcing readers to question animal rights along with the characters in the novel. As Ben realizes, “I guess I’d always assumed humans were more important than animals.”
Other Notes: I’m really glad this book started with the chimpanzee being ripped apart from his own mother, even if it was in a lab setting. It took me a really long time to realize that this book took place in 1973 – I thought at first that Oppel was just ignoring other experiments of this kind. Also, I seem to recall Ben complaining that not only will he have to move to a new town and school, he will have to learn ASL – but then suddenly he magically knows ASL without spending any time in the novel telling us he’s learned it. Despite growing up poor, Dr. Tomlin is very snobby and uppity in his new lifestyle as rich-doctor-with-exciting-new-ethically-questionable-experiment – it’s rather annoying, but foreshadows the evolution of his character quite well. I really appreciated Ben’s difficulties in school – the story would have been much more difficult for me to read had Ben been a perfect character that fit in perfectly at his private school, getting amazing grades, all the girls, etc. His ‘disappointing’ performance in school also provides basis for more dissonance with his father, and comparison of himself to Zan. Pages 221-222 broke my heart.
Possibly questionable content: Ben’s first new friend after the move to British Columbia shows him a storage freezer full of pornography magazines; also his father’s gun rack. Ben’s mother breastfeeds the chimpanzee as an infant. Ben has a crush on Jennifer Godwin, his father’s boss’ daughter – and rather than think about how beautiful she is, he focuses on her breasts and her legs – the crush is written very deliberately in this way; I’ve never seen that style of writing in a novel before. Ben’s parents frequently give him wine with dinner, and Ben drinks beer at a beach party. Also, copious making out, one session of above-the-shirt groping.