A humpback whale leaves the sea for a trip up the Sacramento River, causing a stir among the locals, in this debut book-length poem.
Inspired by the true story of Humphrey, a humpback whale that left San Francisco Bay and swam up the Sacramento River in 1985, Leplin’s poem is a fun and frolicking journey, at least until humans arrive on the scene. Humphrey, a young and innocent whale, follows a salmon one day, curious about her destination. He unwittingly ends up in the river, where other animals, such as ducks, are unable to give him directions back to the bay. Traveling up the river, he befriends and listens to the stories of various creatures, including a raccoon who tells the tale of how he and his cohorts acquired their trademark masks. Humphrey also comes across a heron, frogs, and a wild dog named Ralf, who relates shocking information about science experiments performed on animals. Distressed by the revelations, Humphrey continues until he meets some humans in the flesh. Jake and Steve, two yokels with shotguns and a flask of Wild Turkey, see Humphrey on the news and arrive to shoot him, apparently to prove the superiority of humanity. A young girl named Sooky is also in the area, concerned for the whale’s well-being. As Jake and Steve prepare to aim, Sooky also becomes a target, causing Humphrey to realize “The tragic irony: / The human race was dark and light— / Complete duality.” As Humphrey tries to make a speedy escape, the Coast Guard, the Navy, the media, and a crowd of spectators are waiting near the bay, unsure of whether Humphrey is a friend or foe. Leplin’s sizable work of poetry is enjoyable to read, with a mix of lighthearted and serious tales told in an easily digestible rhyming scheme. Humphrey’s simple inquiries aren’t enough to justify a work of this length, but the action does increase in the second half, after the shooting incident and when the media reports and military activity become a frenzy. Unfortunately, there are a lot of human beings, and the poetry format makes it difficult to adequately describe that many people, organizations, and entities, and their various locations and motives.
An ambitious poem with a nice environmental message.