Title: Whale Talk
Author: Chris Crutcher
Genre: YA contemporary fiction
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Audiobook from the public library
Audiobook reader: Brian Corrigan
First line: In the end, write it down.
The Dao Jones, who goes by T.J. (to avoid the inevitable “how’s the market holding today?” jokes), is a senior at Cutter High School. Cutter is a small logging community near Spokane, Washington, and, in Cutter, sports are everything. T.J. is athletically talented, but refuses to buy into the athletic system at his school, a system that rewards the physically strong, regardless of their character. His refusal to turn out for sports has given him the reputation of having no school spirit, which is a mortal sin in Cutter. This reputation is compounded by the fact that he is the product of a Japanese-American/African American father and European mother, making him one of the very few people of color in a community so close to Northern Idaho that students from his high school have been known to attend the White Supremacist rallies held by the nearby Aryan Nation.
T.J. doesn’t mind his reputation, though. He knows who he is, faults and all, and he’s okay with that. His adoptive parents are terrific and have given him a foundation that not many kids are lucky enough to have. One more year, and he will move on from Cutter and on to the rest of his life. His plans to sail on through his senior year are derailed by two incidents: he sees a football player bullying a mentally handicapped student for wearing his dead brother’s letter jacket, and his English teacher asks him to be the first member of a new swim team. T.J. puts together a team of the most unlikely athletes, determined that they will each earn a letter jacket that they can wear proudly in defiance of the school’s more traditional athletes-slash-bullies.
Chris Crutcher is a local author to me. He lives and writes in Spokane, and I had the privilege of interviewing him via e-mail in 2009. Then, last year, his memoir, King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography was one of my favorite audiobook listens of the year. Until I started Whale Talk, however, I had not read any of his fiction. After finishing the book last night, he now has a permanent place on my list of authors whose entire backlist I intend to read.
I read a lot of YA fiction, and much of it is very good, so when one title in particular stands out and makes me determined that everyone else knows about it and reads it, it is a big deal. This is that book. I LOVED Whale Talk. First of all, T.J. is a terrific main character, a young man I would be proud to call my son. No, he is not perfect – he has a nasty temper and a rebellious streak that can lead to trouble. But he also knows exactly who he is and what he believes in, and is whole-heartedly willing to put his time, his energy, and, sometimes, his fists on the line.
Another thing I found refreshing about Whale Talk is that T.J. has terrific parents. In much of the YA I read (and especially the paranormal fiction), the parents are necessarily portrayed as either absent or stupid – otherwise, how could they not know what was going on with their kid? But T.J.’s parents are smart, loving, and intuitive in their parenting. They are present in his life, standing by as he becomes an adult, not pushing him to become the person they want him to be, but proud of the person he is becoming on his own, and available for questions and encouragement whenever needed.
The swim team that T.J. puts together is full of the most interesting characters: Icko, the assistant coach, an older man who works two minimum-wage jobs and secretly lives in an all-night fitness club so that he can afford to send his son to college; Andy Mott, a young man with only one leg who is about as surly as they come; the mentally challenged Chris who wants to wear a letter jacket to honor his dead brother; Tay-Roy, a champion body builder whose soul is full of music; Dan Hole, who never uses a one-syllable word when a polysyllable word will suffice. These swimmers and their two coaches become a team in every sense of the word.
At first glance, Whale Talk would appear to be a sports story, but it is so much more than that. It has heart without being schmaltzy. It is realistic about the evil lurking in the human soul without leaving the reader full of despair. It has moments that made me laugh and others that had me choked up. And it left me with the strongest feeling that these characters are real, that if I go to Hoopfest in Spokane next year, I’ll see a team of out-of-the-ordinary athletes led by an African-Asian-American dynamo.
Highly recommended – Whale Talk is truly a must-read.