This novel is of an early language experiment done with chimpanzees, in the seventies. It’s told from the viewpoint of a teenager whose parents work at a university. They bring home an infant chimp to raise in their home- to see if it can learn to communicate with sign language. Ben is annoyed at first, jealous of how much attention the chimpanzee demands. He’s also not happy having to attend a new school, dealing with pressure from his parents to get better grades, navigating an intense new interest in girls and trying to figure all that out while making new friends. Gradually he becomes more involved with Zan, the chimp, and starts to relate things he’s learned from his mother’s books (Jane Goodall!) with Zan’s behavior, also comparing to humans. He decides to be methodical in his efforts to win a girl’s attention- keeping notes on things she likes in a logbook similar to how his parents keep notes on Zan, and starts interpreting how kids behave at school- constantly shifting social status and all- with “alpha” chimp behavior. That was both funny and interesting. The family is eager to see how Zan starts picking up sign language and using it, but they come under scrutiny from the university department who brings in an expert challenging their ideas- is Zan really learning language? or is he just cleverly imitating signs to get rewards? There’s issues renewing their grant, and it becomes harder to manage keeping Zan- while he can be cute and endearing, at barely two years old he’s already stronger than any one human, can become aggressive without much notice and makes horrendous messes. This all leads to Ben’s parents deciding the chimpanzee must go- probably to a research facility where he can live with other chimps. Ben protests- he’s become fond of Zan and feels like the chimp is his little brother now- and he feels it’s unfair to treat the chimp as part of a human family and then ditch him in a new environment- will he be able to adjust? Ben’s outrage spurs him to some hasty, questionable actions- and while the ending was satisfying I felt it concluded a bit too quickly.
Overall I liked this book- I’ve read quite a few in the past about language experiments like this that were actually done with chimpanzees and gorillas, and I think this was a very well-rounded look at that for teens. It touches on all the issues without really diving deeply into any one thing- is the chimpanzee a family member or just an experimental subject? what is he really learning from them? what’s the best way to treat him fairly? At the end there are glimpses of different ways chimps are treated in other facilities- some quite grim and others more benign. Reading this made me look to see if I have other nonfiction books on similar topics on my shelf.