Sixteen-year-old Ben has a lot on his plate. Or, actually, he has nothing on his plate but barbecued iguana…which is even worse.
But we'll get to the barbecued iguana part in a hot second.
At the beginning of the novel, Ben's dealing with the sudden death of his mother, who was killed in a car accident. On top of that, he's had to pick up his father's slack. Jim Byron's really checked out of the whole "being a dad" thing.
Ben starts taking on a lot of new responsibilities before his mother is even buried. The day of her funeral, he's in charge of getting his little brothers ready:
When it came time to dress for the funeral, [Dad] went into his room and shut the door. Usually he helped with our ties, but this time I had to do it for everyone. (2.4)
It's not just tying ties, either—Ben's now the emotional rock for his brothers, especially Gerry.
Meanwhile, he's not coping so well with his own feelings about his mom and his anger with his father about their yearlong boat trip:
I felt I could terrify the depths of space with the scream inside me. (21.13)
So yeah, he's not doing so hot.
Ben has a lot of feelings, but he's not really in touch with them. When he's faced with a new situation, he has to really search himself to figure out what he's feeling. He refers to this as "trying on words" (32.104).
Often, what he's feeling is a little, well, cheesy.
Take, for example, his fantasy about getting a car, which sounds like something out of a Bruce Springsteen song:
I planned my car, the one I intended to get as soon as I turned sixteen—the color, the interior, the paint trim, the factory extras, the things I would add. I draped one wrist over the steering wheel. I felt the wind in my hair. […] I turned to the girl beside me and she smiled. (12.2)
We can just see the music video now.
When Dylan gets sick, once again Ben falls back on masculine stereotypes. This time, he wants to be a hunter-gatherer mountain man:
Was there a plant we didn't know about? Some tree bark? A special seaweed? I would dive for it. All the way down. I would push away the fire coral to reach it. I would rip it out from under a starving shark. Whatever it takes, I said to myself. (38.27)
Rip it out from under a starving shark, eh, Ben? Riiight. We seem to recall that the one time Ben was faced with a shark IRL, he froze…and his little brothers had to save him.
As much as Ben thinks he hates his father, the two are alike in a lot of ways. Both have short tempers, which Ben occasionally takes out on his little brothers. On the island, Ben has a flash of insight when he realizes that he's taking on the traits he hates most about his dad.
It all starts when Gerry doesn't want to eat a moldy breakfast bar:
"You've got to eat it," I shouted. "There's nothing else!" I clamped my hand over his mouth. "Swallow!" He looked up at me with round, drowning eyes, and I was rocked by the memory of Dad holding him underwater at Honeymoon Harbour. I jerked my hand away and watched him let the wet, brown blob roll out of his mouth and drop into the sand. (32.86-32.87)
To Ben's credit, he does try to correct his behavior when he realizes he's being a jerkosaur.
A lot of Ben's hostility toward his father seems warranted. (Jim Byron's picture is under the dictionary definitions of both "irresponsible" and "selfish.") But at the end of the book, we find out that Ben has been harboring a secret grudge against his dad, whom he blames for his mom's death.
He's fighting with his father when it finally slips out:
"And even Mom. You made her—" (40.63)
The word he doesn't say, of course, is "die."
Learning to forgive his father is the last obstacle Ben has to overcome before he can regain balance in his life. Will he be up to the task?
Ben matures in a lot of ways over the course of the book. Despite all the trouble he and his family encounter on the ocean, the experience seem to have healing powers. (Or maybe it's just the passage of time.) For a while after her death, remembering his mother made Ben really sad. Eventually, though, he's able to remember her without pain:
When I saw her in my mind like that, it wasn't sadness I felt. It was joy. This sudden bolt of joy. (18.31)
Ben's biggest achievement, though, is in finding a way to patch things up with his father. At first, when he's reunited with his dad, Ben is furious—so furious he almost refuses to go back home with his family.
At the last minute, he changes his mind:
Standing in the sun, I heard Dad again. My dad. My only dad. (47.40)
Cue the sappy music, Shmoopers. Our boy's all grown up.