Starred Selection 2008
Gerry, 14, and his parents are returning to the African savannah after six months in London when their plane crashes, killing the pilot. When Gerry resumes consciousness, he discovers that he has come to live in the body of a baboon that is part of the group that his biologist parents are researching. He uses his human intellect and powers of reason to ensure his survival and growing acceptance by the troop; he also documents his gradual loss of his ability to count and read and track the passing days. After eight months as a baboon, a terrifying incident with a leopard triggers the teen's re-entry into his own body. The author soundly grounds his novel in accurate scientific detail about baboons. In spite of the less-than-satisfying ending in which doctors attempt to convince Gerry that he dreamed the entire experience while he was in a coma, readers craving adventure and nature-based drama will find this an engrossing follow-up to Gary Paulsen's Hatchet (S & S, 1987) and a logical introduction to Peter Dickinson's Eva (Delacorte, 1989).
Ellen FaderCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Excerpted from Chapter 1
He watched a drop of water crawl up the window and dribble away, carried on the plane's slipstream. Gerry pressed his cheek to the plastic, trying to see what lay in their flight path. Ahead, anvils of cloud massed on the horizon. Lightning stabbed earthward from one of them and Gerry counted off the seconds to the thunderclap. One, one thousand... two, one thousand... three, one thousand... and then a drumroll of thunder. Only four miles now. They were still heading into the storm.
He looked across the aisle and saw his parents at their windows. Their attention was fixed on the grassland rolling below them. The pilot banked into a turn to give them a better view and Gerry caught himself gripping the arms of his seat.
"We're not going to see anything in this weather," said his mother. "I'm sure they've all taken shelter." She was talking about the troop, of course: the baboons his parents had been studying for close to three years now. The plane rolled back into level flight.
Gerry and his parents were flying back to their camp after a trip to Arusha to pick up supplies and check their e-mail. Even during that short trip, Gerry had heard his mother say more than once that she missed the troop. She wondered aloud how Zeus was doing. Was Mavis's daughter all right? Was Oscar still nursing? Had Hector's tail healed? His father would put an arm around her and try to reassure her. "They'll be fine," he said. "They managed before we ever began watching them and they'll manage long after we've stopped."
But Gerry sometimes thought his mother believed that only her constant fretting kept the troop well. His father was quieter about it, but neither of them could wait to return to camp where making field notes on baboon behavior would be their sole occupation --
that and Gerry's schooling, a task they shared during the months they all lived in the field.
To tell the truth, he was relieved to be out of school for half the year. He didn't mind the classes, but in the hallways and on the playing field he had to face the fact that he was something of a runt. Just keeping up during the lunchhour soccer games was getting harder and harder as the players around him metamorphosed into giants. "You'll shoot up," his father told him. Easy for him to say. Gerry had seen pictures of his father as a child. He guessed he had been the only elementary school student with a five o'clock shadow. No wonder he felt a special kinship with the hairier primates.
His mother crossed the aisle and kneeled in the seat in front of Gerry. She draped her elbows over the seatback and studied him.
"You all right?" she asked.
"Going to miss the big city?"
"The big city Arusha? Or London?"
"I hadn't even thought of Arusha. We were only there two days. You missing that, too?"
"I already kind of miss plumbing. And television. The Internet. Restaurants --"
"Oh, and there's something wrong with my cooking?"
"No. But it's not like I can just order whatever I want."
"You've got that right."
"Anyway, I don't know why you're asking. It's not like if I say 'yes' we're going to turn around and go home."
"You know, there'll come a time when you look back on these days --"
"I know: the best three years of my life."
His mother sighed. "You've got us all figured out, haven't you?"
What's to figure out? he thought. The most important thing in the world to you is a bunch of monkeys. There's nothing wrong with that. Really. There are worse things someone could devote their life to. But did you ever think I might not feel the same way?
She returned to her seat on the other side of the cabin. A bright flash and a crack of thunder brought Gerry back to the task at hand, which was keeping the Shorts Skyvan flying. He didn't think of himself as a nervous flyer; it was just something that had to be done. Their pilot, Stan, seemed entirely too relaxed a man for the job and his parents had the troop to worry about. That left only Gerry to keep the groaning forty-year-old boxcar in the air. Clutching it by the armrests and pulling upward seemed to be working nicely, but who knew how long that was going to last?
There were only three rows of three seats, just behind the cockpit. On his parents' side of the cabin were two seats per row, on Gerry's, only one. Stan had salvaged them from a commercial airliner and bolted them to the deck of the Skyvan. They looked strangely out of place here, with their fold-down trays and headphone sockets.
He was grateful that he and his parents were the only passengers aboard. Even so, they felt heavier than they had on the flight out. Probably all that rich restaurant food in Arusha. That, and a small front-end loader called a Bobcat, about a ton of drilling machinery, and a stack of core boxes all filling the rear of the plane's boxy interior. Gerry guessed that the equipment was on its way to a mining camp somewhere.
He wished they were back in the city. Even another night in Arusha would be welcome. In the lineup to see a movie, a girl had waited ahead of him. He had stood right behind her, only inches away, pretending his parents were strangers. He would have said something to her if they hadn't been there. That, and if he had the slightest idea of how to start a conversation with a girl. "Hello. I couldn't help but notice that you speak English. I, too, speak English..."
"...whenever I can think of something to say."
But all he could think of was how easy it was for males in the troop: picking your way through the grass, looking for roots, you work your way toward her. At the right moment, casually start grooming the back of her head. No need for small talk. The only reason to open your mouth is to pop in anything you find crawling through her fur. Hair.
"You're losing it, Gerry," was what his friend Milton would have said. "Out there in the jungle. It's only a matter of time."
"It's not the jungle," said Gerry. "It's the veldt."
"The veldt. Savanna. Grassland. It's sort of like a lawn nobody's mowed for a million years."
"Whatever. It's still the middle of nowhere. Living in a tent is not normal. You're growing up weird."
Milton's e-mails were full of such dire pronouncements -- if not about their own futures, then the world at large. Global warming. Overfishing. Industrial growth in China. Rogue asteroids. Gerry's father referred to Milton as the world's grimmest thirteen-year-old. It was hard to imagine a place safer than Croydon, a comfortable suburb of London. But for Milton it was a cliff, and they were all teetering on the edge. He was right about one thing, though: living in a tent for months on end with only his parents and a troop of baboons for company wasn't exactly normal. But then, how normal was living in Croydon for the other half of the year and walking to school each morning with the prophet of doom?
Gerry missed those walks, and he liked to think that Milton missed them, too. Milton might have been glum, but they always ended up laughing about it -- okay, Gerry always ended up laughing about it. Exchanging e-mails in a library or an Internet café every six weeks was no substitute for having a friend who was just two doors down the street, always there, ready to remind you that no matter how bad things might be now, in the end, they would be even worse.
The plane bucked beneath them and all three passengers grabbed their seats before they settled again into level flight. Mind on the plane, thought Gerry.
"Sorry, folks," said the pilot.
Meet the Author
David Jones is a full-time freelance writer with a degree in zoology. He has written widely on natural history themes and has published one previous book for young readers. He lives in Vancouver, B.C.
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