You’ll have a whale of a time
Take the sperm whale-shaped obsession of Moby Dick, add the fantastical zoology of Free Willy, sprinkle with the green undertones of Pocahontas and then throw the resulting quandary in the path of a loveable, fearless and indefatigable adolescent protagonist and you have Nicola Davies’ Whale Boy.
This charming children’s tale takes place on Liberty Island, a fictional Caribbean idyll where Mother Nature is generous and where honest and hardworking Michael dreams of piloting a boat of his own amongst the whales and waves of his native seas. Unfortunately, the whales, like Michael’s parents, haven’t been seen for years. Only Michael, with childish yet portentous optimism, still ‘harbours’ hopes of their return. In the meantime, while juggling school, a frail grandmother and a handful of odd jobs, he saves just enough money to fund the downpayment on that elusive first boat (his fiduciary maturity is the first important lesson children will take from the story).
Suddenly, just as it comes into view, Michael’s frugal utopia is smashed. A slick and sinister-sounding corporation has taken over the quayside, silencing any potential critics with promises of jobs, economic growth and increased tourism. Our poor hero is left all at sea. Who are these heartless entrepreneurs? As Michael soon finds out, the company goes by the (rather careless) name of New Marine Enterprises — NME. Not convinced they’re evil? Well, perhaps you’ll change your mind after taking a ride on their corporate ship, the Ahab.
At the head of this Thomas Gradgrind Inc. is a swarthy Scot named Spargo. Before we can discover whether he enjoys 80s Dutch pop Spargo has lured Michael into his web with promises of money and a boat of his own. With his ailing grandmother now requiring expensive medical care (there aren’t quite enough fish in the sea to fund a free healthcare system), Michael is in no position to refuse. Spargo’s deal, though, comes with a hefty and dark condition: find that big white whale. In fact, find a large pod of them.
That sperm whales congregate in the warm waters of the Caribbean was the first of my macrocephalus-based misconceptions to be shattered like a flimsy whaling vessel; second, sperm whales are, in fact, a dark shade of grey; third, their brains are the largest in the animal kingdom; fourth, if approached with an olive branch rather than a harpoon they are capable of befriending humans and even acting as auxiliary life guards.
OK, that last one is a bit of poetic licence on the part of Davies, but I indulged it as I indulged the story’s other serendipitous twists and turns. Call me Ishmael — sorry, call me biased, but like Davies (a prominent whale watcher and zoologist) I find it unfathomable that Japan, Norway and Iceland insist on hunting thousands of these magnificent mammals every year under the laughable veneer of ‘scientific research.’
After reading Whale Boy one member of the notorious whaling trio may consider legal action against Davies, but her plot is based on facts: not only does the (Manga-loving) country hunt whales and then illegally sell the meat, it also bribes smaller members of the International Whaling Commission (including our fictional Liberty) to vote for its pro-whaling measures.
Whatever your cetacean stance, this is a fine book. And if you found yourself falling asleep while reading Moby Dick, don’t worry: Whale Boy may have several things in common with Melville’s epic, but speed of plot is not one of them. Furthermore, unlike the whale of Ahab’s nightmares, the sperm whales in Whale Boy actually show up from time to time. So climb aboard and get ready to cheer as Michael and the loveable leviathans strike a blow for the natural world.