To Become a Whale…
To Become a Whale tells the story of 13-year-old Sam Keogh, whose mother has died. Sam has to learn how to live with his silent, hitherto absent father, who decides to make a man out of his son by taking him to work at Tangalooma, then the largest whaling station in the southern hemisphere. What follows is the devastatingly beautiful story of a gentle boy trying to make sense of the terrible reality of whaling and the cruelty and alienation of his new world, the world of men.
Set around Moreton Island and Noosa in 1961, To Become a Whale is an extraordinarily vivid and haunting novel that reads like an instant classic of Australian literature. There are echoes of Craig Silvey, Favel Parrett, Tim Winton and Randolph Stow in this moving, transformative and very Australian novel.
Once again, I have been treated to learning about a slice of Australian history through the reading of superb fiction. Ben Hobson’s quality debut, To Become a Whale, is surely destined become an Australian classic, not only for its human element, but for its historical retelling of life on a whaling station in Australia during the 1960s, through the eyes of a 13 year old boy.
The whaling station, Tangalooma, situated on Moreton Island, is a place I knew nothing about prior to reading this novel, not even that it had existed. I didn’t find the descriptions of the whaling as graphic and/or confronting as some readers have, but I grew up on a dairy farm where we killed our own beasts, a process I was involved in from start to finish at a very young age, and I imagine this has tempered my view somewhat. I did find it sad, to reflect on the practice of whaling, but this is history, it happened, it doesn’t happen anymore (here in Australia), and we have, for the most part, learnt from it. But the daily operations on Tangalooma were quite fascinating to me; terribly hard work that only the sternest of men could have endured season by season. It’s this type of ‘everyday history’ that I find fascinating and in the retelling of it, Ben has excelled.
To Become a Whale is just as much a tale of discovery and coming of age for Walter as it was for Sam. Walter had to make this transition from absent father to single parent and he was in no way ready for that. So he tried to absorb Sam into his single man’s life, failing to see the harm he was doing to his son. Sam was far too young and possessed far too much empathy to have been exposed to the adult environment which existed at Tangalooma. And even before this, with his father taking him out bush immediately after his mother’s funeral; this was more about Walter and his own grief and there was no consideration at any stage for Sam and the stability that he needed. Yet, just as I was filled with anger towards Walter at different stages throughout the novel, I was also overcome with sympathy. He was Sam’s father, and I think he felt that, but his worklife decisions up until this point had prevented him from ever engaging fully within that role. I sensed within Walter the desire to do right by Sam, he just didn’t have a clue how to go about that, which is what roused my sympathies. He loved Sam deeply, but couldn’t project it, much less demonstrate it, so Sam was left feeling abandoned and insignificant, the effects of this on him magnified by the loss of his mother and his unchecked grief.
“It wasn’t just that she was gone, it was that he was never going to be her son again, he would share no new experiences or moments with her.”
This was such a profound thought for Sam, so pivotal within his grief and it affected me deeply, as a mother of two sons, aged 11 and 13.
Indeed, I found this novel hard to read without this colouring my view. I wanted to reach into the pages and pull Sam out, shake Walter and scream at him: “He’s just a boy!” Having this story articulated through Sam’s eyes was a powerful choice, strengthened by the narrative being related by ‘the boy’. What at first seemed impersonal proved to be deeply telling and conveyed so much with so little. Every word within To Become a Whale was essential, a further stitch in the tapestry of Sam’s future life. Even descriptions of the seemingly mundane came back later, through other experiences, so that as you progressed throughout the novel you came to fully appreciate the story Ben Hobson had set out to tell right from the very beginning. I feel that the language and style of this novel makes it an ideal choice for inclusion within the Senior English curriculum, particularly within Queensland schools seeing as the novel is set in Queensland itself. Despite being an adult novel, it’s highly accessible and we need more texts that can be enjoyed by boys. I’m not trying to indicate that girls would not appreciate To Become a Whale, but I feel this is a particularly powerful novel for older boys that will resonate with them on a level current texts often don’t.
Overall, To Become a Whale is a truly devastating tale of grief unanswered. Yet it’s also a beautiful story about a boy realising his true potential for himself. In many ways, Sam’s ocean journey towards the end of the novel mirrored his greater journey through his grief. He had to let go and yield to the elements before he could be found. Of course, the profundity of his meeting with a whale at this pivotal time is perhaps one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve read within a novel for a very long time. It was not without a tear that I made it through this part.
As is my custom, I like to pick out favourite lines from the novels I enjoy. In this instance, To Become a Whale contains one of the truest lines I’ve ever read within a novel, a line that speaks to me intimately. It is a reflection made by Sam on the state of his parent’s marriage.
“The marriage was sturdier without the people.”
Ben Hobson, you are a literary genius. You have enriched my life for these past couple of days of reading and I thank you for it.