Book Review: Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

A colleague loaned me this YA book to read. It’s one that is sometimes taught in high schools, so I was interested to read it. First of all, there are profanities and derogatory language in the book, so you’ve got to like, or at least tolerate, grittiness to read this book. This book is very real, and it doesn’t white-wash anything, so if that isn’t your cuppa, then perhaps pick up a different book. Because it is so real, though, I could see many students relating to it and enjoying it. With its powerful male narrator, I could also see it appealing to reluctant male readers as well.

The book follows TJ, a boy who has been adopted and is battling anger issues, as he starts a swim team at his high school. The team ends up being composed of a group of misfits. Over the course of the novel, they come together, using their bus rides to swim meets as bonding time. But the novel isn’t just about a misfit team—that underdog sports story has been done before. This one focuses more on TJ as the leader of that team as he reconciles other issues in his life.

What I enjoyed was all the gray area in the book. For instance, I love TJ’s ambition. He fights for the truth and for freedom when he sees injustice in the world, but as his mom points out, he has anger issues that don’t always let him see rationally. He’ll stand up for abused girlfriends, for instance, not realizing that if they don’t report their boyfriends for abuse, there is nothing TJ can do. It’s almost as if he wants to save everyone from everything wrong with the world. He is reminded by his adoptive parents, neither of whom is perfect, either, that there is more to life than black or white.

He also stands up to the culture of his school, which is something that really resonates with me—standing up for what you believe in regardless of what others think or do. Part of the reason TJ agrees to start the swim team is that one of the boys who becomes a swimmer, Chris, has been criticized by the athletes and coaches for wearing a letterman jacket that belonged to his brother (now deceased). In the culture of the school, one is not supposed to wear a letterman jacket unless one has earned it. Chris is mentally challenged, and his brother’s jacket gives him comfort. TJ can’t fathom why the coaches and athletes simply can’t leave him alone to wear the jacket. And thus his plan—to invite Chris onto the swim team, where he can earn his own jacket.

TJ has a strong personality that dominates the book. His voice comes through strongly in the first-person narration. If you like him, you will like the book. I found he came off a bit rough at first, but as the novel progressed, I came to understand where he was coming from, and by the end I was rooting for him and turning the pages faster. I won’t give away the ending, but it is a coming-of-age tale with a poignant and satisfying conclusion.