To label the novel, To Become A Whale a ‘coming of age story’ doesn’t do it justice. It’s so much more than that. Sublimely and sensitively written, this book is an impressive debut for Australian author, Ben Hobson.
Set around the Tangalooma Whaling Station off the North Queensland coast of Australia, it depicts the brutality of the whaling industry through the eyes of Sam, a sensitive thirteen year old who is mature beyond his years. On the cusp of manhood, his mother’s death thrusts him into the care of his father – a physically and emotionally absent man with violent tendencies and a panache for telling lies. The boy captured my heart from the beginning and in the end, despite his many failings, the father won me over too.
The book opens in 1961, with Sam attending his mother’s funeral and immediately the strained relationship between father and son is apparent. During the first night without a mother, Sam sobs, trying to hide the noise from his father. But his father wakes, asks Sam if he’s alright, then adds, ‘you have to stop crying, mate, and get some sleep. Crying doesn’t fix anything.’ In the morning, Sam is taken away from his maternal grandparents and forced to build a temporary shelter on an isolated beach with his father, biding time until the whaling season starts.
I keenly felt the mother’s absence throughout the book, although she was frequently present in Sam’s grief. The characters were so well drawn that I came to care very deeply for them. So many times I wanted to step in and comfort the boy, shielding him from the brutality of the grownup world just a little while longer. I wanted to shake the father and beg him to go easy on his son.
Although the story is centred around death (first Sam’s mother, then countless whales), it is also full of life. Vivid images leap off the page and character insight unfolds naturally. The introduction of a puppy shortly after the mother’s death is inspired – and the boy’s interaction with it throughout the novel reflects changes in his character arc. There are explanations for the father’s behavior – a product of his upbringing, and I suspect, an attitude somewhat typical of the era. However, the boy’s determined nature, and the softer influence from having spent long periods alone with his mother, allow the child to break this hereditary chain.
Whilst the scenes on the whaling station are brutally depicted, I didn’t find them off putting; maybe because they’re seen through the boy’s eyes. The choice of setting allows the boy to be immersed in a male dominated, violent environment at a crucial time in his life. We see him adapt and, eventually, learn to better understand his father, despite the difficult circumstances. In this environment he is able to compare his father’s behavior to that of other men. Sam wants to walk away from the killing of whales, but is buoyed by the sense of purpose amongst the men. He witnesses the men laughing and joking as the whales are dragged up the slipway and wonders if there’s no dignity in death. And he learns that although his father can be violent towards others when provoked, he has a certain respect for the whales, and holds in contempt the men who glorify in killing, purely for the sake of it.
After reading this novel I am even more grateful that whales are now reverred creatures. I have visited the old whaling station in Albany (South Western Australia), a permanent reminder of our whaling past. However, nothing hits home like a story so graphically, yet beautifully told through the eyes of a boy forced to grow up too soon.
The ending holds promise for the father and son’s relationship, and the scene between the boy and the whale was poetic and visually stunning. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and will be re-reading it soon with my son, who is close to Sam’s age.