Johnston’s debut recounts the partnership of English-born railway signalman Jim Wide and his service baboon, Jack, in 1880s South Africa.
After an accident necessitates the amputation of his legs, Jim can no longer inspect the trains at Uitenhage Station. Fortunately, his request for a new task is granted, and he becomes a signalman, switching trains onto different tracks by pulling levers. But getting around is difficult, even after Jim carves himself prostheses and builds a handcart. Jim finds a helping hand in Jack, a chacma baboon, training the animal to push the cart, operate switches, and more. Soon, the hardworking primate becomes not only Jim’s assistant, but his “best friend.” But when railway authorities discover a monkey at the switch, Jack must prove his reliability in order for Jim to keep his job. Jack’s antics are sometimes charmingly (and somewhat disorientingly) humanlike; affection radiates throughout the straightforward text and Samaniego’s close, expressive illustrations as the pair share an exuberant cart ride or Jack chatters at a smiling Jim, a hand on Jim’s shoulder. Against the eloquent illustrations, the occasional speech-balloon dialogue feels redundant. Most humans, including Jim, present white; South Africa’s troubled racial history goes unmentioned. An author’s note provides an epilogue, and thought-provoking discussion questions touch on animal rights. Backmatter includes archival photos, a glossary, internet resources, related reading, a brief history of service animals, and a bibliography.
A warm, engaging tale of the bond between a resourceful man and his service animal. (Informational picture book. 8-12)