CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 36. . . .May 26, 2017
Toronto, ON: Penguin, July, 2017.
231 pp., hardcover & e-book, $18.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-14-319875-8 (hc.), ISBN 978-0-14-319876-5 (e-book).
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-14.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Chipper led her through several steps. Finally, holding her phone and looking at the screen, she said, “I think I got it. Say something.”
like to chase squirrels.
“Yes!” she said, grinning as the words appeared on the phone. “It works!” But her grin quickly faded. “So I get this working and you just want to talk about squirrels?”
No. I have other things on my mind. But it is true that I like to chase squirrels. Are there squirrels in these words?
“Yes,” Emily said matter-of-factly. “There are lots of squirrels in these woods. There are hundreds of them. Thousands of them. They are all over the place.”
“Do you think that's the most important thing we have to deal with right now?” Emily asked.
Emily shook her head. “This is like something out of a science-fiction movie. Mixing up a dog and a computer. I mean, why would anyone even do that? What's the point? It must've cost millions to do what they did to you. Why? So you can open your own can of dog food?”
I would've been sent on missions.
“Missions? What do you mean, missions”?
To see things. Hear things. No one notices a dog.
“So, like, you're a spy? A dog spy?”
Jeff, 12, is an orphan who now works at his Aunt Flo's fishing camp. He is a bit of a Cinderella figure, slaving away unappreciated under his unkind aunt’s watchful eye, cleaning cabins, sorting garbage and even being forced to drive it to the dump without a license. There he meets Emily, a girl his own age whose family runs Shady Acres Resort and who becomes Jeff’s friend.
Chipper is a special dog. He is enhanced with very expensive technologies and is part of a scientific experiment at The Institute. In the opening scene, he can tell something is even more wrong than usual in his lonely laboratory life, and he’s right - one of the scientists (whom he calls the White Coats) is about to euthanize him, and he makes a break for it, eventually escaping into the subway and then a bus to the countryside. Chipper is heading straight for Jeff, although we don’t know why, and uses his smarts to ditch the agents who will stop at nothing to keep their program a secret. Chipper, Jeff and The Institute thugs all tell their stories in alternating third person point-of-view chapters. The constantly changing scenes and viewpoints keep the pace fast and entertaining.
The set-up for the scenario of kids and robo-dog against the shady super-secret operatives is a little obvious, and the execution is sloppy at times, especially in the beginning. But, as the story develops, it gets tighter and more sophisticated and includes elements like a stone wall sunken in a lake, a supersonic blast and a friendly summer guest whose motives are unclear. It will also explain why Chipper needs to find Jeff and what really happened to Jeff’s parents. While some of the plot is predictable, the prose is always extremely readable. Chase is a compelling adventure tale of a boy with no one who makes a friend and then is called upon to assist a very unusual dog.
Chipper is the most intriguing and entertaining character in the book. A cross between animal and machine, he is trying to reconcile the two. In some ways, he longs to be a regular dog, while appreciating the opportunity to use the extra skills he has been given. Why is this one dog more special than any other, though? It seems like, by giving the dog enhanced knowledge and capabilities, Barclay is suggesting that Chipper possesses more consciousness than other non-human animals and is, therefore, a more worthwhile creature. I don't think this is a good lesson for readers, but at least it is a jumping off point for discussion. Emily is a bit of a computer whiz and figures out that Chipper has an interface which allows the kids to see his thoughts; he can communicate in direct sentences via a network connection. How does a dog, even an enhanced dog, think and express himself when given the opportunity? It is an interesting question, and again, one with a lot of room for debate. Chipper is extremely believable and likeable, and his situation can also be extrapolated to humans who have been given enhancements and may be given even more in the future.
Chase is a surprisingly dark book for its intended audience. These are unremittingly evil villains, but they are more than facile caricatures because they have actually committed specific acts of mass murder. They don't think twice about killing a plane full of people in order to eliminate Jeff’s parents whom they see as a threat to their project, bumping off their own compliant scientists and knocking out Jeff’s aunt for basically no reason. Perhaps young readers won’t be disturbed by this sinister universe, but the creation of one-dimensionally evil yes-men normalizes fears of extreme violence and might not be a good lesson to internalize.
Many novels fail to wrap up the plot in the conclusion, leaving questions open for a sequel. However, Chase ends with an extreme cliff-hanger and the words ‘to be continued’. This is a little bit of a letdown and could have been handled better with slightly different pacing. Despite this, readers will enjoy the twists and turns of the action and will relate to all three main characters.
Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent, editor and cultural critic in Vancouver, BC.
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