Book Review – Chris Crutcher’s “Whale Talk”

Grade Level and Audience

In his 2001 novel, Whale Talk, Chris Crutcher weaves the stories of teenage characters into one compelling tale that begins with bullying and uncovers much deeper issues as a team of boys band together to overcome their status as non-entities within their school and their community.  Winner of several young-adult literature awards*, Crutcher again demonstrates his ability to create captivating storylines and three-dimensional characters with this book.  One of Crutcher’s strengths is his unapologetic exposure of social violence usually followed by social justice.  An honest depiction of the adolescent years and the psychological and sociological implications of current social issues are revealed through Whale Talk’s storyline.

This is an intriguing book for adolescents and the reading level is attainable by many middle and high school students.  Is it also available as an audiobook for struggling readers.  The plot holds an interest area that crosses curriculum, extracurricular activities, and community life.  Therefore, it is appropriate for use as a source of curriculum for the following types of classrooms; SPED, Psychology/Sociology, Government/Social Justice, Debate, and Athletics.  It is also suitable as a resource item for the Library and in Counselors’ Offices.  JDP

Plot Summary

Whale Talk is a young adult novel by Chris Crutcher.  He has won many awards for his Young Adult books from the American Library Association (ALA).  However, this book, and others by Crutcher, captures the interest of adults as well.

Whale Talk is a first person narrative told through the character of T.J.  This independent high school senior is Japanese, African-American, and Caucasian.  His biological mother named him The Tao.  Therefore, he goes by T.J. to cut down on personal humiliation.  T.J. lives with his adoptive parents in a small town located in Washington State.  His life has been one of rebellion against the torment he has endured due to his mixed heritage.  T.J. is athletic, but never uses it to his advantage in school sports.  However, one day that changes.  His rebellion takes a positive turn after witnessing the bullying of a mentally challenged high school student, Chris Coughlin, by the school’s top football player, Mike Barbour.  Chris wears his deceased brother’s letter jacket so he may feel close to him.  However, the football players feel Chris degrades the importance of the jacket because he did not earn it.

In opposition to the bullying and arrogance of the football players T.J. pulls together a swim team so they can win their own letter jackets.  The team consists of the schools outcasts and misfits; this includes Chris Coughlin.  The other members of the team are as different from their peers as are T.J. and Chris.  The motley crew of swimmers includes Andy Mott, who removes his prosthetic leg to swim.  There is Jackie Craig whose silence makes him nearly invisible.  Dan Hole and his intense linguistic abilities make him incapable of conversation with other high school students.  Tay-Roy has a fantastic physique but chooses to go with the group of misfits.  Finally, there is Simon DeLong whose excessive weight threatens to wash other swimmers from the pool when he dives in.  However, together they join efforts and attempt to achieve the impossible by earning letter jackets for every team member.

The path is rocky, as expected.  However, the back-stories that Crutcher provides for the various team member grows increasingly harsh with each revelation.  Physical and sexual abuses are among the stories the boys share during their long bus trips to swim meets.  The pinnacle is when one-legged Andy Mott tells his story of abuse and neglect at the hands of his mother’s former boyfriend.  Further complicating matters is the constant conflict these team members have with Mike Barbour and his mentor, former High School football star, Rich Marshall.  Marshall is a racist with serious anger issues and a history of domestic violence.  His young mixed raced stepdaughter, Heidi, is the primary target of his uncontrollable anger.  As a result, she is in counseling because she hates herself and her skin color.  At one point, the little girl tries to remove her skin with a metal scouring pad.  When T.J. intervenes on behalf of the child, he becomes Marshall primary target.

All of the swim team members, with the exception of T.J., earn their letter jacket.  However, Crutcher does not end his story there.  T.J.’s Dad dies from a gunshot as he protects Heidi from Rich Marshall.  As he lay dying, T.J.’s dad begs his son to find peace and not let this event negatively affect his entire life.  The book ends with T.J. seeking inner peace as he works to become the man his Dad wanted him to be.  JDP

*Whale Talk-Awards Bestowed

  • ALA Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults Winner
  • Texas Library Association Tayshas High School Reading List Winner
  • Book Sense Pick Winner
  • Washington State Book Award Winner
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age Winner
  • ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults Winner
  • ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults Winner (Harpers-Collins Publishers, 2014)

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