Like all of Crutcher's young adult novels, the themes found in Whale Talk reflect adolescents' struggle to overcome extreme obstacles and tragedies in life and to develop a sense of personal worth. The main characters in this novel, the Cutter swim team, are those students who are left on the fringe of high school because of mental or physical handicaps or as the result of the prejudice and intolerance of others. However, as the main characters struggle to carve out a place for themselves, they demonstrate strength of character and resiliency. They clearly demonstrate how compassion and generosity can help others overcome tragic circumstances. These characters also illustrate the need of all human beings for respect and dignity. Another important theme is that life is not fair and that the quality of life depends on what one is willing to take from life.
These themes are first evident in the main character Tao Jones, or T. J., who clearly shows the struggle that teenagers from mixed heritages face in trying to establish a cultural identity. T. J. tells the reader that he is Japanese, white, and black, although he has never been to Japan or Africa and doesn't know which countries make up Northern Europe. Therefore, he defines his ethnicity as "mixed," "blended," "pureed," and "potpourri." He further points out that it is difficult to be "of color" in a country where racists are often given a clear voice. As T. J. so vividly describes, sometimes people don't run into racism; it runs into them. As a result of his experiences, T. J. places himself in direct opposition to the one group who so clearly represent the close-minded and intolerant—the elite who wear the Cutter High athletic letter jacket. He also makes himself the self-appointed defender of the downtrodden, including a mentally handicapped young man named Chris Coughlin.
T. J.'s compassion for fellow victims of prejudice like himself is most evident when Chris is harassed by Brian Barbour, the worst bully at Cutter High. When Chris is slammed against the locker for daring to wear his dead brother's Cutter letter jacket, T. J. quickly comes to Chris's rescue. T. J.'s sharp wit and defiant attitude save Chris but make Barbour a formidable enemy.
It is obvious that T. J. has a vision of how the world could be a place of fairness and equality. When Coach Simet approaches T. J. about forming a swim team for Cutter High, T. J. sees it as an opportunity to break through the elitism of the Cutter athletes. T. J.'s efforts to recruit a swim team result in an unlikely group of misfits. Ironically, his first recruit is Chris Coughlin, whom T. J. sees helping a little girl with shriveled arms paddle a kickboard across the pool. Like T. J., even though he is the victim of intolerance, Chris is capable of great compassion toward the...
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