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A Trapped Killer Whale Makes Waves of Conscience

August 06, 1988|MITZI MYERS

The Hostage by Theodore Taylor (Delacorte Press: $14.95 hardcover; 176 pages)

Taylor's novel opens and closes with lyrical evocations of the killer whale's world, a device that frames the moral conflicts at the adventure's heart. This story manages to be exciting and ethically aware. When Jamie Tidd and his fisherman father trap the hostage, a live killer whale for which a California marine park has offered $100,000, they are thinking only of escaping the grinding poverty of the Vancouver coast.

The Tidds are decent people, facing dilemmas in an authentic place and time. It's rare in young-adult fiction to see so rich a sense of locale--or so many unobtrusively placed lessons in natural history, for that matter.

Taylor knows the place and people, and though his message is environmentalist, it is very far from the simplistic pieties of "Save the Whales!" The self-satisfied media coverage of the capture is as far from the moral mark as the selfishness of the marine park's movie-star owner. The young reader must side with Jamie and gradually learn with him what the whale's imprisonment in Wilwilli Cove really means--for the big fellow himself and also for the assorted do-gooders and exploiters who complicate the boy's struggle toward justice. Increasingly uneasy, the reader and Jamie look the whale in the eye: "No anger at all. I had to look away."

The story is unusual in highlighting a moral choice that reaches beyond the purely personal toward the culturally significant, but it does have a lively romantic interest and a winning heroine, sassy Angie, who fishes like a guy, flirts like a girl and helps to educate the smitten Jamie. Indeed, Angie's rash venture into Tyrannus' cove precipitates the story's crisis.

A Deadly Killer

The whale may be a mammal, akin to humans and enjoying their company, and he may even have two pregnant "wives" who patrol his prison. But he is also a deadly killer, as Jamie has earlier seen, when the still-free Tyrannus and his women tore apart a humpback, devouring the living body and staining the seas red: "I never thought I'd cry over any stupid fish."

Armed only with a knife to slash the nets between the huge "blackfish" and freedom, Angie too discovers that the whale she's been sentimentalizing has his darker side. The dazzling rescue she'd planned becomes her own.

Tyrannus regains his freedom, but not in the pat way the reader perhaps expected. Jamie's story isn't one of black versus white, but of physical survival and spiritual progression. It is as thought-provoking as it is fun to read.

Myers frequently reviews young adult books for The Times.

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