To Become a Whale, by Ben Hobson

My discovery of Ben Hobson’s fiction is well behind the times.  He was shortlisted for Seizure Onine’s Viva La Novella prize in 2014 for his novella If the Saddle Breaks My Spine, and his debut novel To Become a Whale, (2017) was longlisted for both the ABIA Debut Fiction award, and the Courier Mail’s People Choice Award in the Queensland Literary Awards. Since then Hobson has released his second novel, Snake Island, (2019). but it was not until after we’d had a quick Twitter exchange about a book we both loved, (Stoner by John Williams) that I checked out To Become a Whale from the library… Now that I’ve read Hobson’s novel, I can see the link between his interest in Stoner and To Become a Whale.   For some time now Australia has been having a national conversation about the status and safety of women, and that issue appears to have been influential in the change of government that took place last weekend.  (#HappyDance!) Hobson is clearly interested in interrogating how masculinity can be expressed and his novel uses a conflicted relationship between a boy and his father to explore it. 13-year-old Sam Keogh’s mother has just died, and his entire world collapses.  Prior to this, his father Walter was mostly absent, away at work for long months of the year.  Sam grew up under his mother’s care to be sensitive, compassionate, gentle to animals, interested in music and not keen on the sports that intrude into his life when dad comes home.  Dad has a different set of expectations and a hyper-masculine ambition for his son.  To make this point, Hobson has set his story in the most extreme location imaginable… The novel is set in 1961, with flashbacks to Sam’s childhood while his mother was alive, and the reason for this time frame becomes clear when the funeral is over and the boy and his father set off on a road trip.  Australia was still a whaling nation in the 1960s and dad intends to make a ‘man out of his son’ by taking him to work at the Tangalooma whaling station on Moreton Island. For most Australians, whaling is the most abhorrent industry there is for two reasons: firstly because there is no humane way to kill a whale, and secondly because some species were hunted almost to extinction and are still endangered today. Sam, who knows little about his father except that he has a savage temper and is cruel to a vulnerable small puppy, is cast into an heroic quest for survival.  They are all alone on remote roads, camping in a crude makeshift shack that Sam has to help build with shoddy materials.  His father’s orders are curt, and often inadequate so that the boy doesn’t understand what he is supposed to do.  For him, navigating a path to the masculinity his father has chosen for him, means keeping under the radar and behaving with more maturity than the man.  For a bereaved boy of thirteen, this is extremely difficult but he is a prisoner of his father’s alienation and cruelty. Evidenced by his behaviour towards Sam’s dog, Walter has a transactional view of training and discipline.  Children are like dogs, he thinks.  Their reason for existence is to be useful in the work that they do, and satisfaction comes from the respect of others less powerful.  Love, affection,  touch and conversation make one weak and vulnerable.  Communication is for barking orders, accompanied by brute force if necessary.  Kids need to be toughened up, and Walter is the man to toughen up Sam. Things get worse when they reach Tangalooma.  Hobson initially sidesteps the foul reality of the work, positioning the boy aside from the main action with a hose, depicting his struggle to stay awake during long twelve-hour shifts in the dark.  But then, as the boy achieves his own ambition to ‘be a man’ by accepting what cannot be changed and enduring the long hours, his father rewards him by offering him a turn with the knife.  By then, heavily invested in the fate of this child, I could not stop reading, but I skipped descriptive passages even though Hobson had made it clear that the whales were dead long before they were brought to the station to be butchered. There is, however, a prospect of redemption for this father when he realises he might lose his son too.  Both father and son ‘come of age’ when Sam takes the opportunity to act independently with near-fatal results.  Faced with his own existential crisis, Sam transcends his hatred and fear so that he can see why his father behaves as he does.  His emerging maturity — forced onto him at a time when he is so vulnerable — enables him to see that Walter’s version of masculinity hasn’t fitted him for the role of single father.  Walter’s lack of self-awareness means he has no capacity to deal with his grief or to empathise with his son’s — and he can’t ask for help because that conflicts with his idea of manhood. The contrast with John William’s character of Stoner could not be more stark. Years ago, I taught a very nice boy in Year 5.  He was funny, kind, and gentle, and he loved animal

To Become a Whale, by Ben Hobson

My discovery of Ben Hobson’s fiction is well behind the times.  He was shortlisted for Seizure Onine’s Viva La Novella prize in 2014 for his novella If the Saddle Breaks My Spine, and his debut novel To Become a Whale, (2017) was longlisted for both the ABIA Debut Fiction award, and the Courier Mail’s People Choice Award in the Queensland Literary Awards. Since then Hobson has released his second novel, Snake Island, (2019). but it was not until after we’d had a quick Twitter exchange about a book we both loved, (Stoner by John Williams) that I checked out To Become a Whale from the library…

Now that I’ve read Hobson’s novel, I can see the link between his interest in Stoner and To Become a Whale.   For some time now Australia has been having a national conversation about the status and safety of women, and that issue appears to have been influential in the change of government that took place last weekend.  (#HappyDance!) Hobson is clearly interested in interrogating how masculinity can be expressed and his novel uses a conflicted relationship between a boy and his father to explore it.

13-year-old Sam Keogh’s mother has just died, and his entire world collapses.  Prior to this, his father Walter was mostly absent, away at work for long months of the year.  Sam grew up under his mother’s care to be sensitive, compassionate, gentle to animals, interested in music and not keen on the sports that intrude into his life when dad comes home.  Dad has a different set of expectations and a hyper-masculine ambition for his son.  To make this point, Hobson has set his story in the most extreme location imaginable…

The novel is set in 1961, with flashbacks to Sam’s childhood while his mother was alive, and the reason for this time frame becomes clear when the funeral is over and the boy and his father set off on a road trip.  Australia was still a whaling nation in the 1960s and dad intends to make a ‘man out of his son’ by taking him to work at the Tangalooma whaling station on Moreton Island. For most Australians, whaling is the most abhorrent industry there is for two reasons: firstly because there is no humane way to kill a whale, and secondly because some species were hunted almost to extinction and are still endangered today.

Sam, who knows little about his father except that he has a savage temper and is cruel to a vulnerable small puppy, is cast into an heroic quest for survival.  They are all alone on remote roads, camping in a crude makeshift shack that Sam has to help build with shoddy materials.  His father’s orders are curt, and often inadequate so that the boy doesn’t understand what he is supposed to do.  For him, navigating a path to the masculinity his father has chosen for him, means keeping under the radar and behaving with more maturity than the man.  For a bereaved boy of thirteen, this is extremely difficult but he is a prisoner of his father’s alienation and cruelty.

Evidenced by his behaviour towards Sam’s dog, Walter has a transactional view of training and discipline.  Children are like dogs, he thinks.  Their reason for existence is to be useful in the work that they do, and satisfaction comes from the respect of others less powerful.  Love, affection,  touch and conversation make one weak and vulnerable.  Communication is for barking orders, accompanied by brute force if necessary.  Kids need to be toughened up, and Walter is the man to toughen up Sam.

Things get worse when they reach Tangalooma.  Hobson initially sidesteps the foul reality of the work, positioning the boy aside from the main action with a hose, depicting his struggle to stay awake during long twelve-hour shifts in the dark.  But then, as the boy achieves his own ambition to ‘be a man’ by accepting what cannot be changed and enduring the long hours, his father rewards him by offering him a turn with the knife.  By then, heavily invested in the fate of this child, I could not stop reading, but I skipped descriptive passages even though Hobson had made it clear that the whales were dead long before they were brought to the station to be butchered.

There is, however, a prospect of redemption for this father when he realises he might lose his son too.  Both father and son ‘come of age’ when Sam takes the opportunity to act independently with near-fatal results.  Faced with his own existential crisis, Sam transcends his hatred and fear so that he can see why his father behaves as he does.  His emerging maturity — forced onto him at a time when he is so vulnerable — enables him to see that Walter’s version of masculinity hasn’t fitted him for the role of single father.  Walter’s lack of self-awareness means he has no capacity to deal with his grief or to empathise with his son’s — and he can’t ask for help because that conflicts with his idea of manhood.

The contrast with John William’s character of Stoner could not be more stark.

Years ago, I taught a very nice boy in Year 5.  He was funny, kind, and gentle, and he loved animals.  He was one of the biggest boys, but he was protective of the more vulnerable kids in the class and there was no bullying while he was around.  He wasn’t very academic but he loved listening to Ivan Southall’s adventure stories, and he baked a beautiful cake for the class party for my 50th birthday.  So I was absolutely shocked when he told me that his father took him pig-shooting in the bush.  I couldn’t imagine this funny, gentle boy enjoying killing as sport, but it was a salient reminder that it’s not killing animals that makes people brutal.  It’s a failure to empathise with others.

Update, the next day: *smacks forehead* I forgot to mention the brilliance of the title with its imagery of the whale.  Whales are huge, powerful, majestic — and gentle.  Boys do not need to take on the savagery of sharks to become men.  A boy can ‘become a whale.’

Author: Ben Hobson
Title: To Become a Whale
Cover design by Romino Panetta
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN: 9781760294397, pbk., 394 pages
Source: Kingston Library