Night of the Whale

by Jerry Spinelli

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Setting

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 187

Most of Night of the Whale is set in Ocean City, New Jersey, a family resort on the New Jersey coast. The story takes place right after the central characters graduate from high school. The day after the graduation ceremony, they travel to Ocean City to stay at the beach house of the parents of Helene Hallewagen, editor-in-chief of The Acorn, the high school newspaper for which they all worked. The use of the house is part of Wags's graduation gift.

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On a trip from Ocean City to Wildwood, New Jersey, on the fifth day after graduation, their car breaks down, and they find a beach nearby, which they call Acorn Beach, but whose real name is Nelson's Cove. Since they cannot make it to Wildwood, they decide to have a party at the beach. During the party, Digger Binns discovers the stranded whales.

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Another setting is the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey. The final setting is Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Warren Umlau, known as Mouse, goes to college and where he is writing the story about their trip to Ocean City.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

In Night of the Whale Spinelli uses many of the attributes of great literature, but he uses them in a superficial, often simplistic way. In a sense, the novel is what religious scholar Joseph Campbell calls a monomythic adventure: It is a kind of traditional hero quest in which a hero ventures forth into a wilderness, usually one with supernatural attributes, encounters marvelous adventures and challenges, often involving slaying a dragon, and returns home a hero, having saved his culture. In the course of his adventures, the hero usually grows considerably. In this novel, however, the adventurers try to save rather than destroy the monstrous beasts they meet—whales, not dragons, although it is interesting that when they first see them, they mistake them for sharks.

The theme of initiation also is central to Night of the Whale. Mouse is especially interested in undergoing a successful initiation experience. But the initiation he desires has nothing to do with becoming a responsible member of adult society. Instead, it has to do with performing actions that he associates with college students. In other words, he wants to initiate himself into a peer group that he thinks is concerned with mostly trivial things like chugging beer and vomiting quietly. In the course of the novel, however, he does mature. He at least discovers and his friends discover that he is capable of physical endurance, so much so that toward the end of the book Wags calls him "big boy." In the last paragraph of the novel he says of himself, "I felt as though I were returning from across the universe. From another time," indicating that he at least feels that he has been on some kind of journey into an extraordinary realm.

Others also mature somewhat. Lauren learns that good looks are not the most important thing on Earth and that she can be beautiful even without her makeup on. The one who supposedly matures most significantly is Digger, the most immature of the group. At the end of the novel, he decides to stay at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center to help keep the baby calf alive. According to Wags, from this particular stranding, "There might be one whale there, but there's two survivors." Sandy is amazed at the profundity of Wags's statement.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 284

Night of the Whale does treat some very important issues. Central to it is humankind's responsibility to nature. The episodes dealing with the stranded whales are exciting. They are handled realistically: Spinelli does not underplay the suffering of the whales, and he definitely shows that trying to rescue them is a largely futile activity. Still, most of the characters in the book, including Mouse, the narrator, are convinced that it is one's duty to try to rescue them anyway. Hacksaw represents the opposing point of view, although he is not treated sympathetically, and he never speaks for himself.

Nonetheless, the book does present some problems. Its central humor is scatological, and its ideas about maturity are open to serious questions. Mouse's idea that maturity can be measured in terms of things like chugging beer and mooning someone is never refuted or even questioned in the course of the novel.

According to the publishers of the Laurel Leaf edition of the book, it has a reading level of grades 5 to 6. Even though the editors of Booklist recommend it for high school students, it seems aimed not at high school seniors, as the identity of the central characters might indicate, but instead at Spinelli's usual audience, students in the seventh through ninth grades, who may read this novel after reading some of Spinelli's other works. The scatological humor, Mouse's smallness, his naivete about sexual and physical matters, and his ideas about maturity all indicate that Spinelli really has a fairly young audience in mind, one young enough to believe that chugging beer, eating a whole medium or large pizza, mooning someone, and hanging around a frozen food section wearing a tank shirt are signs of maturity.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 219

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon, 1953. In this classic study of the quest hero, Campbell explores what he calls the monomyth from its origins in preliterate times through the great classical epics such as The Odyssey by Homer and the fairy tales up to the present. Spinelli seems to have gotten his structuring principles for part of Night of the Whale from this book.

Keller, John. "Jerry Spinelli." Horn Book 67 (July-August 1991): 433-436. A discussion of Spinelli's becoming a full-time writer and a writer of fiction for young adults.

R[ochman], H[azel]. Review. Booklist (December 1, 1985): 562. This is a brief, evaluative, balanced review of the novel.

Spinelli, Jerry. "Maniac Magee: Homer on George Street." In Horn Book 67 (January-February 1991): 40-41. This is the speech Spinelli gave when he accepted the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction. In it, he explains some of the timeless aspects of Maniac Magee, in part comparing it, as his title indicates, to the works of the ancient Greek poet Homer. Many of the things he says about his award winning novel also apply to Night of the Whale.

"Newbery Medal Acceptance." Horn Book (July-August 1991): 426-432. In this acceptance speech, Spinelli reviews in general terms his career as a writer for young adults and the sources of his ideas for his works.

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