by Kelpie Wilson
NorthAtlantic Books, 2005
320 pages, $13.95
Primal Tears is a funny, deep, exciting, and biologically correct novel springing from an innovative idea: What if efforts to bring back endangered species from the brink are taken another step through a different kind of captive breeding program, with human surrogate mothers carrying the endangered fetus to term, thereby increasing birth rate of the species threatened with extinction? Not possible for whooping cranes, snail darters, or tiger salamanders, but it is not so far flung a concept for bonobo chimps, who are as close to humans genetically as horses are to donkeys, and that’s how we got mules, right? Things get interesting for author Kelpie Wilson’s character Sarah Carrigan when she implants a bonobo embryo into her womb in just such an ecologically-driven experiment. She gets more than she bargained for when the fertilized egg fails to implant, but some left-over bonobo sperm fertilizes one of her own eggs. Sage, the human-bonobo girl, is thus conceived.
Sage in some ways has the best of both worlds, being extremely agile and strong, smart and curious, but decidedly different from her peers, sporting a slightly protruding brow and a hairy back. Sage is no Bigfoot – though is once mistaken for one – but is able to fit in, fending off curiosity.
When the truth about her conception is revealed, the reality of societal hostilities to new ideas, and moreover to the inherent rights of animals to exist along with humans, comes galloping in from the Child Welfare agency, followed by the local sheriffs and federal agents, fired up by the Bible-thumping Kristian Kommand, who call her “Satan’s spawn.” All hell breaks loose as the family flees to prevent Sage from being taken away, shifting gears into an escape plan they hoped they would never have to use. After a long hike through the Siskiyou wilderness and stints with friends in Canada and on a rural California Indian Reservation, the law catches up with them again, this time snatching Sage away. But the youngster now knows the drill, and manages to escape on the way to “protective custody.” The inherent survival skills of the wily teenager kick into gear. We are along for the ride on Sage’s adventures, exploring her arriving sexuality, living in the forest with the bears, running from the right-wing Kristian Kommand and hooking up with “Tree Nation,” a group of young tree-sitters determined to keep the chain saws at bay in the old-growth forest.
Once she “comes out” to the world as who she is, she hooks up with a rock band headed by Marleybone, a wildly tattooed Euro-Pakistani woman who is all the rage with the activist crowd. Marleybone invites Sage to go on tour with her and talk to the world about the plight of the bonobos, and she does – wowing the crowd with stunning acrobatics while Marleybone wails. Sage travels to the African continent to attempt to meet her genetic roots, in her quest to devise a campaign to protect the bonobo population from a burgeoning human population and poachers. Learning that logging roads are being carved into the bonobos’ forest home, Sage and her friends found an organization to raise money to for health clinics to better address population issues, and chicken ranches so bonobos won’t be killed for meat.
There are lots of surprises in this fast-moving story, as when Sage meets her biological father, and when a plan is hatched to exploit the pheremones she produces for a different kind of birth control. The story is also replete with themes that echo current events, set in the Pacific Northwest where real-life dramas of forest habitat loss bring in passionate and hard-hitting campaigns with opposition from extreme right-wing reactionaries bearing a marked resemblance to the Kristian Kommand. Carrigan found herself in a position to carry this unique baby because she was suddenly fired for teaching evolution in the classroom.
Wilson did her research well. We learn about the differences in apes and humanoids in their ability to vocalize, and the fact that apes cannot shed tears. We also learn that perhaps we have more in common with other species that we share space with on this blue-green planet than we might think.