Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Whale Talk

The males at my house ("our dudes," as Eleanor refers to them) enjoyed taking quizzes at sporcle this winter, a site Harriet brought to our attention. One that I took with them was about banned books, and there were several by Chris Crutcher that we hadn't read, so when I found his YA novel Whale Talk (a frequently banned book) at the library recently, I checked it out and read it, and enjoyed it--both because it's a good story, and because it's oddly appropriate to my life right now.

Part of my enjoyment came from my recent motherly struggles to understand and support a newly teenaged son. Three-fourths of the way through Whale Talk, a novel in which the young male protagonist struggles to control his newly-fired-by-testosterone-temper, I was at the soccer field, watching a newly-grown-taller adolescent boy get a "yellow card" for pushing another player in a moment of temper during a game. I was watching a newly-grown-very-tall boy who has, just this season, learned how to control all that new arms and legs. And I was watching my son, still in the throes of literal growing pains and not able to run as fast as he used to, tripping over another player and spinning twice in the air before hitting the ground. But he's tough, you know. He's a teenager now. He can "walk it off," as the coaches say. I was sitting next to the mother of the newly-grown-very-tall boy, who told me that her son also had to stay home from school on Monday, after a weekend of delivering mulch for the high school soccer team, probably because he was exhausted, like my son, from trying to keep up with the much older boys, carrying sacks of mulch that were exactly half my son's weight. But we know that eventually these boys will get tougher, just as they're getting taller.

Whale Talk is about the right way to get tougher. It centers on the story of a group of high school boys who band together on a swim team and share their strength, which results in each one of them getting tougher physically but also more sensitive to the feelings of others. It's the teenage boy tightrope, and Crutcher makes me feel it almost like I'd been there. Both the main character and his father have some demons in their past, but instead of using them for a "twinkie defense" of bad behavior, they use what they have experienced to control what they can and let the rest go, something that clearly takes more strength than giving in to temper and lashing out. At one point, when the main character, T.J. (who describes himself as "black. And Japanese. And white"), feels like beating up a guy who is mistreating his girlfriend, T.J.'s father tells him that beating up the guy won't help, saying that guys like him "have just as much right to exist as you do. They have just as much purpose. You think it's your job to teach them a lesson, but they're not going to learn any lesson you're going to teach, so I have a feeling it's the other way around. You kick Mike Barbour's ass, and it just cranks him up to be more like he already is. He'll immediately turn it racial and respond by hurting somebody else. He and Marshall both have that amazing capacity to believe that other people make us do things."

As I read, I kept trying to figure out why the book is frequently banned, and I thought it might have something to do with the secrets the boys share with each other, but when I went to Chris Crutcher's website, I discovered that a lot of the challenges to this book are because of the language (yeah, like your teenager doesn't hear these words at school) and even the way the characters question authority. Crutcher responds to challenges of his books intelligently and sensitively. He has a staff that evidently patrols the internet looking for challenges, as I got an concerned email from one of them, offering help, after a previous review of one of his books, in which I mentioned a local religious group's intention to challenge a long list of books, including some of Crutcher's.

I'll continue to read more of Crutcher's novels, and recommend them, not just to boys, but also to parents of boys. Because it seems to me that both sides are trying to figure out how much and what kind of tough is enough. And if you think you've figured some of it out, please... share!


Harriet said...

Sounds like I need to check it out. Thanks for the review!

SFP said...

Whee! The library has it and I'm on my way up into the tower to retrieve it now. Don't know if I'll be able to convince my son to read it, but it sounds as if he should.

Thanks for the review.

Jeanne said...

SFP: If we could convince our sons of lots of things, rather than have to watch them learn by experience, it would be a different kind of world!

Anonymous said...

We've been sporcling, too!