Debbie Lee Wesselmann


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 8, 2008)

“We are a facility dedicated to improving the lives of captive chimpanzees, animals incapableof surviving outside human care.  We do not experiment on them, nor do we allow them to live in cramped quarters.  We are not a zoo.  Our sole reason for existing is to enrich stunted lives.  For this reason we are perplexed why someone would feel it necessary or even desirable, to let them out of their protective habitat.”

When someone opens the gates to the South Carolina Primate Project and five chimpanzees escape, Director Dana Armstrong goes into overdrive.  These animals are unequipped to deal with the outside world, and, more importantly, the outside world is unequipped to deal with them.  Taken from their native African habitat to be used as lab animals or as attractions in tiny roadside zoos in this country, these animals have now been rescued to live out their lives in the sanctuary.  They in no way resemble the cute J. Fred Muggs, however, nor are they miniature people or child-like toys—they are potentially dangerous wild animals who have been used and abused.  They have no knowledge of the outside world, no trust for strangers, and no knowledge of how to be independent.  Most importantly, some of them have been infected with HIV.

As Dana uses her knowledge of the forest surrounding the sanctuary, along with her ability to communicate with these chimpanzees through pant-hoots (a "language" and series of gestures that Jane Goodall made famous in National Geographic specials), she immediately rounds up four missing chimps.  The missing fifth is the most dangerous to all, especially to himself, and he appears to have escaped the boundaries of the project.

The escape and recapture of the chimps in the first ten pages of this fast-paced novel cause innumerable long-term difficulties for the SCPP, and it is these problems which create the tension and make the novel's action and conflict come alive.  Many of the local residents did not know the sanctuary was there, and they want it closed as a danger.  A group of animal activists, misunderstanding the purpose and structure of the sanctuary, want it closed so that the animals will not have to live in enclosures, though where they would live is uncertain since they cannot be returned to the wild.  The University of South Carolina, with which the project is associated, has a potentially disastrous PR nightmare on its hands, and a disgruntled rival for director of the project wants to oust Dana as Director, claiming that she is unqualified. 

As she deals with this series of complications, while still trying to keep the SCPP running, Dana is also dealing with personal problems.  Divorced, and alienated from her parents, Dana is also the victim of a cruel childhood experiment.  The daughter of a University of Oklahoma psychology professor who wanted to study interspecies communication between humans and chimpanzees, Dr. Reginald Armstrong introduced a baby chimpanzee named Annie into the family when Dana and her brother Zack were aged seven and two, telling them this was their "sister."   The experiment lasted for two years, and Dana has never forgiven her father, feeling used in much the same way that the baby chimp was used.   She regards running the Primate Project as a way to pay back the chimpanzee world for the abuses chimps have suffered in the name of "research."
Author Wesselmann keeps the action moving at breakneck pace, much like the pace of Dana's life.  On nearly every page, there's some detail which keeps the reader intrigued, wondering about its significance and wanting to continue reading.  Her information about chimpanzees and their behavior, which shows the result of many years of research, is unobtrusive, smoothly integrated into the story as part of the action and not expounded in long paragraphs.  Her ability to create moods, often connected with the natural surroundings, like the sanctuary in a foggy dawn, which is described at the outset of the book, adds to the atmosphere and makes the reader "see" the surroundings and understand the inner life of Dana Armstrong, through whose consciousness most of the action is filtered.  Other points of view, though brief—her father, her brother Zack, Sam the photographer—add to the plot without detracting from Dana, on whom the primary attention rests.   

The lives of the human characters in many ways parallel the lives of the chimpanzees in the project, and these parallels show, in an appropriate way, the universality of our behaviors—the need to dominate or to be subservient, the desire for friends, the innate tendency to play games and have fun, the provocation to anger, the female yearning for a baby, the importance of being "liked," and even the need to be alone.  Wesselman creates individual personalities for specific chimps, just as she creates personalities for her human characters, and no reader will fail to see the relationships between some of them and specific humans, especially Dana's brother Zack. 

The behavior of the human characters in crisis, though usually less noisy and more subtle, is easily seen to resemble the more obvious behavior of the chimpanzees in their daily lives and occasional battles.  Beautifully constructed, full of excitement, filled with fascinating parallels between human and animal world, and true to life in its details about academia, academics, and research projects, Captivity ultimately shows the extent to which we are all captives of our lives and our pasts.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 25 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Captivity at author's website

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(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky FEB 8, 2008)

Debbie Lee Wesselmann’s Captivity is an engrossing novel about a primatologist’s crusade to rescue and nurture abused chimpanzees.  Dr. Dana Armstrong is a brilliant scientist who has devoted her life to the South Carolina Primate Project (SCPP) sanctuary. This is a safe haven for captive chimpanzees that was conceived by Henry and Eileen Murray, a pair of wealthy philanthropists.  Dana’s mission is to take chimps “most damaged by human whim and to introduce them to the complexities of social groups….”  She, together with her colleague, Mary Nakagawa, a veterinarian, and a corps of graduate students, helps mentally and/or physically damaged chimpanzees by providing them with good food, giving them access to fresh air and exercise, and teaching them how to interact with other members of their species.  Thanks to grants, congressional funding, and the financial support of generous donors, Dana has thus far been able to keep the sanctuary fiscally solvent.

Unfortunately, all that Dana has labored for is endangered when an unknown intruder gains access to the sanctuary and releases the chimpanzees.   Could this have been the act of misguided animal liberators or was the responsible party someone with a hidden agenda?  No matter who freed the animals, the break-in creates a public relations nightmare for the SCPP.  Questions are raised about Armstrong’s competence and the threat that the chimpanzees might pose to the surrounding community.

Dana Armstrong did not stumble into the study of primates by accident.  When she was a little girl, her father, Reginald Armstrong, brought a baby chimp named Annie into his home as part of an experiment.  Armstrong, a psychology professor at the University of Oklahoma, used his daughter, Dana and her younger brother, Zach, as participants in a study of the linguistic abilities of primates.  The children became as attached to Annie as they would have been to a human sibling.  When Annie was eventually sent away, Dana was regretful and sad but Zach was absolutely devastated.  This traumatic experience marked both youngsters for life.  While Dana went on to champion the welfare of primates with missionary zeal, Zach grew into an immature and irresponsible adult who experimented with drugs and got into trouble with the law. Over the years, he takes advantage of his empathetic sister by dropping into her home unannounced whenever he needs something to eat and a place to stay.

Wesselmann has created a cast of beautifully defined characters:  Dana is a strong and confident woman who, since her divorce six years ago, has been obsessed with her job.  Since she never allows herself to get involved with anyone romantically, she sometimes feels lonely when she comes home to an empty house.  Mary shares Dana’s dedication to the chimps’ welfare, but she is also concerned with the needs of her husband and her desire to have a child.  Samuel Wendt is a freelance journalist who has been interviewing the families that were involved in the chimpanzee language studies of the sixties and seventies.  Initially, Dana is deeply distrustful of Wendt’s motives.  However, as she gets to know him better, she gradually begins to open up to him.  Zach is a drifter, an impulsive and immature man/child who acts first and thinks later, much to Dana’s consternation.  The villain of the piece is a former colleague of Reginald Armstrong named Dick Lamier, who is out to destroy Dana and take over the SCPP. 

Captivity is about making tough choices, taking responsibility for one’s actions, the destructive undercurrents that characterize dysfunctional families, and the importance of having the courage to stand up for one’s beliefs.  Wesselmann skillfully presents chimpanzees not just as intelligent creatures who are capable of meaningful communication, but also as fun-loving and emotional beings who are able to give and receive love. The author drives home the idea that chimpanzees are more similar to humans than most of us realize. In addition, the author compassionately addresses the plight of chimpanzees who were born in captivity and managed to survive mistreatment and experimentation.  Captivity is a literate and meticulously researched novel that is both enlightening and richly entertaining.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 25 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Captivity at author's website

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"Trutor and the Balloonist"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage FEB 8, 2008)

Escaping from an abusive relationship, Michelle Trutor accepts an invitation to stay with a former classmate, Arthur Wharton. Wharton, (nicknamed the Balloonist thanks to some bizarre reading glasses he keeps on top of his head) asks Trutor to stay in his family's New Hampshire home and write a biography of his late sister, Caroline. Caroline, who committed suicide--rather brutally--16 years earlier remains an enigma to her surviving relatives. According to the dictates of Caroline's will, Arthur Wharton, his twin brother, Proctor, and Caroline's sour niece, Roberta, must remain in the house for 265 days out of a year. If they fail to meet this (and other conditions), the will is to be declared null and void by its vulture-like executor, Harold Willowby. So Caroline's survivors find themselves locked into a life they would not have chosen for themselves. Caroline controls them as much in death as she did in life.

Trutor arrives with just a duffel bag and a backpack, and this is all that remains of her past life. She has nothing and no one, and so she rapidly becomes immersed in the life at the Wharton mansion. The late Caroline Wharton was not an easy person to know, and many leading questions remain regarding her life. How, for example, did Caroline manage to amass a fortune? Why did Caroline guard her privacy so fiercely? Was Caroline really responsible for the suicide of local artist, Peter Habbit--as some rumours claim? In order to find the answers to these questions, Trutor must solve the mystery of Caroline's life. Through reading Caroline's hidden journals, solving clues left in a series of cryptic riddles, and by interviewing those who knew Caroline best, Trutor uncovers an amazing story.

Part mystery, part Bildungsroman, but all intriguingly readable, I devoured this novel in two days. When I read a synopsis of the novel, I saw shades of Byatt's Possession and that did not bode well for me, as I disliked Possession for its excessive romantic strain. In contrast, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Trutor and the Balloonist. The descriptions of the house--a huge Victorian--were simply marvelous, and I found myself drawn into the story by the eccentric Wharton family. The house--especially the Terra Incognita Room--has a definite Poe-Dragonwyck-esque appeal that immediately intrigued me. While the novel flirts with a feel-good ending, author Wesselmann successfully skates away from sentimentality and instead creates a novel whose characters gain strength and courage to face the secrets of the past and to shape an uncertain--but promising--future

  • Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews

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About the Author:

Debbie Lee WesselmannDebbie Lee Wesselmann received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and her M.F.A. from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she taught fiction writing. She currently teaches English at Lehigh University.

Trutor & the Ballooonist, which was named by as one of the top ten small press books of 1997

Debbie reviews for when she has time.

She lives near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014