When Chris Crutcher writes a young adult novel, he draws on his personal experience as a family therapist and a child protection specialist working in Spokane, Washington. In his novel Whale Talk, we watch a group of misfits and outsiders join together to form the first-ever swim team in a town where the only fitness pool is too short for competitive lap swimming and too shallow for flip turns. Yet, the seven young men on the team, most of whom have never swum before let alone participated in an organized sport, continuously set and beat personal records while walking (or swimming) that fine line between the personal comedy and tragedy of their lives.
Each of these seven young men has experienced deep childhood trauma. For example, T.J. Jones, the head of the swim team, has his own damaging experiences: he is part white, part black, and part Japanese in a subtly racist town. His birth mother, who while strung out on cocaine but feeling particularly religious on the day of his birth, named her son "The Tao"-- spelled T A O -- before giving him up to the Jones family for adoption. Even though his name had always caused him trouble in the classroom, T.J. recognizes the humor in being named The Tao Jones.
More tangibly tragic is Andy Mott, another swimmer, who has only one leg. As a child, he lost a leg to gangrene because his mom's abusive boyfriend tied his leg to a pipe in the kitchen and left him there for twenty-four hours. Having one leg doesn't stop Mott from competing in swim meets, although it does make some of the judges argue about whether his legs are actually moving in sync when he swims the breast stroke.
This team of misfits and outsiders, who end up calling themselves the Cutter High School All Night Mermen, all have painful childhood memories that they both want to share and at the same time to keep secret, especially once they begin to find comfort in their unusual camaraderie. Most importantly, like all of Crutcher's other novels, Whale Talk provides an opportunity for young readers, as well as parents and teachers, to learn some profoundly important lessons about life. Much like a whale out on the ocean who sings because it needs to, whether its song is heard by other whales or not, everyone needs to sing their own song -- of trauma and of triumph
Copyright 2004 © Julie Sinn
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