Saturday, January 6, 2007

WHALE TALK by Chris Crutcher

Title: Whale Talk
Author: Chris Crutcher
Publisher: Laurel Leaf, Reprint Edition (2002)

T.J. Jones is an exceptional young man; mixed race in a predominantly white community, wise beyond his years, and fantastically athletically gifted. Although his athleticism could garner him acceptance, popularity and success in the sports-centered, central Washington high school he attends, he has thus far refused to turn out for any sports. That is, until he finds a way to participate that flies in the face of the well established system of athletic privilege at Cutter High and helps some fellow exceptional individuals and an understanding teacher, Mr. Simet. By joining Mr. Simet’s newly established swim team and recruiting a cadre of misfit and outcast students he happily bucks the system while riding it all the same. By exploiting a loophole in the rules for setting requirements for earning a letterman’s jacket, he attempts to help his team earn these coveted symbols of excellence in Cutter High and prove that even the most unaccepted members of society can succeed in the face of opposition. This is a theme that runs throughout the book in many storylines, both major and minor. Aside from the main action of the swim team’s escapades, T.J. helps in the therapy of a five-year old, mixed-race girl who has been terribly abused by her racist stepfather, and T.J.’s father struggles with a dark secret that sets him apart from others in the most tragic of circumstances. All of these stories intersect in an ending that is both heart-breaking and triumphant, in which it is proven that when the bad guys win it doesn’t necessarily mean the good guys lose. The writing is easy to follow and engaging, but suffers from bouts of melodrama to make the major points. The characterizations are absolutely excellent providing each person with a detailed and complex psychology with the one exception of T.J.’s girlfriend. Her character is a bit 2-dimensional and although very important to T.J., is relegated to the background. Regardless, it is a fine read and a must for teens struggling with acceptance and being different. Course language and themes of racism and violent abuse may make the book more appropriate for older teens.

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