BOOKS: Jennie

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1994:

Jennie, by Doug Preston, Wyatt
Books, c/o St. Martins Press (175 Fifth
Ave., New York, NY 10010), 1994,
336 pages, hardcover $21.95.
It’s hard to believe this book is
fiction. The creatures in it––chimpanzee
and assorted humans––are that real; the sit-
uation is that detailed and specific.

The sense of reality is heightened
by Preston’s use of simulated archival
material to tell this story of a chimpanzee
raised by humans and taught to communi-
cate in American Sign Language. They are
well-intentioned humans, but humans nev-
ertheless, perfect in all their tragic igno-
rance. Like an unruly human child, Jennie
inspires their fondest hopes and dashes
them against reality. Though Jennie is
closely related genetically to humans, she
is intrinsically unable to respond to them as
they expect. When Jennie misbehaves, her
human “mother” suspects that she “knew
perfectly well that she was doing wrong,
and she thought that just by signing ‘sorry’,
she could escape punishment.” The
Episcopalian minister across the street
begins to question his belief in the exclu-
sivity of the human soul and dares dream
of saving hers.
For Jennie is a deeply appealing
character. She is affectionate, inquisitive
and extremely intelligent by any standard.
Her escapades are usually amusing, though
like any young creature, she frequently
skirts disaster. She charms everyone, even
the minister’s grim and childless wife.
Yet, though her primate personal-
ity is in many ways like a human’s, it func-
tions imperfectly in a human setting. Lost
in the intricacy of human cultural and
social behaviors, she believes she is
human, but her biological imperative is
This novel, with its real science
and imaginary scenarios, points out the
prime fallacy in our relationship with other
animals. As Jennie’s closest friend and
“brother” relates, “With all those experi-
ments, they were almost able to erase the
distinction between man and animal. The
one thing they didn’t look at was Jennie’s
ability to understand death. The knowl-
edge of good and evil.” Though we seldom
employ it ourselves, we expect other crea-
tures to comprehend, or accept, the results
of our human logic. Because we come to
love her, too, this tale of one creature’s
life with humans is heartwarming, thought-
provoking, tragic and unforgettable.
––Cathy Young Czapla
Editor’s note: according to
Wyatt Book senior publicist Joan Higgins,
“Walt Disney Pictures has bought the film
rights to Jennie for one of the highest sums
Disney has ever paid for a book.”
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