March is the beginning of the publishers’ spring season; the trickle of new books begins to swell into the tidal (title?) wave that crests in May and June. This March brings two new novels set in the South and an account of a scientific experiment that reads like fiction. Read on!
As the Bare Naked Ladies ask in one of their songs, “Haven’t you always wanted a monkey?” Primates, with their eerie similarities to humans, have always fascinated us. Capitalizing on that interest, Elizabeth Hess’s new book recounts the tale of a bold experiment designed to push the boundaries of human/chimpanzee relationships. Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is an animal story that will appeal even to non-animal lovers. According to linguist Noam Chomsky, language is what separates humans from animals. In the early seventies, a Columbia professor named Herbert Terrace designed an experiment intended to dispute that claim. Project Nim would attempt to prove that a chimp raised from infancy as a human child in a human family and taught American Sign Language would not only imitate the signs, but develop the ability to put them together differently to express original thoughts. Nim Chimpsky, the subject of this ambitious undertaking, arrived at his new home in Manhattan when he was only 10 days old. He was part of the family for several years until a divorce fractured his happy home. From there, he was moved to an estate owned by Columbia University, which was just north of Manhattan. In this facility, Nim was surrounded by grad students and research assistants whose purpose was to care for him and teach him ASL. Throughout these years, he thrived. Not only did he acquire language, he became a local celebrity, even appearing on the David Suskind show. For the first four years of his life, Nim always had a strong bond with a female caretaker. (One of my favorite lines from the book: “Young male chimps, not unlike some human males, require an alpha female to organize their lives.”) Over the years, the project generated scads of data that needed to be sorted and analyzed. Unfortunately, at that juncture, Nim himself became extraneous and he needed to be relocated. What do you do with a chimpanzee who was raised to identify with humans when his research money has run out? What do we owe research animals who have outlived their scientific purpose? The rest of the book explores such questions as Nim is moved back to the primate research facility in Oklahoma in which he was born. Nim Chimpsky was quite a character and the ethical questions raised by the author will provoke much debate.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan is a stunning debut novel that will deservedly draw comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in the Mississippi Delta in 1946 and told in the first person by various narrators, this is a powerful story that makes its point more clearly than a sermon ever could. When Laura’s husband moves their family to a desolate farm in rural Mississippi, she is appalled at the poverty and misery surrounding them. When two soldiers return from the war, the situation gets even worse. Jamie, Laura’s brother-in-law, is haunted by his combat experiences and tries to drown his terror in alcohol. Ronsel is the oldest son of the family of black sharecroppers that work the farm. He returns to the Jim Crow South after having been treated as an equal by white Europeans during the war. To the dismay of both families, the two veterans fall into a friendship that, given the world they inhabit and the ignorance of the people who surround them, can only end in tragedy. This novel is riveting and thought-provoking; I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Joshilyn Jackson’s first two novels Gods in Alabama and Between, Georgia were both terrific, so I looked forward to reading her third, and I was not disappointed. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is another winner, full of family secrets, bonds and ghosts. Laurel, mother of 12-year old Shelby, is visited by a ghost in the dream house she’s shared with her family for 13 years. When she wakes up, she realizes it is the ghost of Shelby’s friend Molly, the girl who has just drowned in her swimming pool. Although the death is ruled accidental, Shelby and her relative Bet (who was spending the night) are both acting peculiar, so Laurel decides to investigate. To find out the truth, she must ask Thalia, her estranged sister, for assistance. She must also head back to DeLop, the poverty stricken town from which her mother escaped through marriage and in which various relatives, including Bet, are still trapped. Going back to DeLop brings back childhood memories of the hunting trip in which their Uncle Marty was killed many years ago. The reappearance of his ghost leads Laurel to think that the current tragedy might be linked to her family’s history. As fragments of the past re-surface and Shelby’s life is threatened, Laurel draws on all her resources to keep her daughter and her family safe. This enormously satisfying novel should introduce many new fans to Joshilyn Jackson’s work.
Susan Taylor has been in the book business, in one aspect or another, since 1982. She works at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. Stop by the store if you are looking for a good book—she’s read a lot more than she can talk about here!