Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review: Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Sophie has returned for the summer to live with her Congolese mother who runs the only sanctuary for bonobo apes in all of the Democratic Republic of Congo.   On the ride from the airport she spots a man selling a baby bonobo.  Seeing that the animal is undernourished and has been mistreated she forks over a bunch of American money to rescue the ape, who she names Otto.  She immediately forms a bond with the ape, and though her mother is angry and disappointed that Sophie would enable the animal trafficker by giving him money and fueling the trade, she allows Otto to stay at the sanctuary, requiring Sophie to mother him.  While Sophie's mother is off doing a release of older apes who are ready to transition back into the wild, a rebel army seizes control of the capitol and havoc ensues.  Armed revolutionaries take over the sanctuary, and Sophie barely makes it into the enclosure with Otto.  Here, they learn together how to forage for food and interact with the older apes. But they can't stay; the soldiers know they're inside and their only hope for long-term survival is to find help outside.  Danger awaits at every turn, and teenaged Sophie is suddenly responsible not just for her own survival, but Otto's as well.

I'll admit that it took me at least 50 pages to get into this book.  At first, I wasn't comfortable with the pacing and the sentences felt a little choppy and strung together.  I reminded myself that Endangered had been selected as a finalist for this year's National Book Award and that there was probably a good reason for that.  Maybe I was being overly critical and looking for things to take issue with, just because I loved Bomb (another finalist) so much and wanted it to win.  So I kept reading.  And I as learned more about bonobo apes and about the government and struggles of the Congo and became invested in Sophie and Otto's survival, something strange happened: I found I couldn't put the book down.  I read the last 150+ pages in one sitting.  From 6:30 to 8:00 in the morning.  On a Sunday.  When I could have been sleeping.  I'm not sure exactly what happened.  I can't imagine that the writing style changed.  Perhaps it was that the pace of the story quickened and the urgency of Sophie and Otto's situation increased just as the need for a constant stream of background information background information background information settled into a sentence here or there about bonobo ape habitat and behavior or mineral wealth and societal poverty in the Congo.  What really sold me on the book though (as I had lingering curiosities about how the author knew so much about bonobos and the Congo and wondered about his research), were the author's note, author Q&A and acknowledgments provided after the novel's close.

I passed this one on to one of the teachers at my school who I know has a deep interest in apes and the welfare of the people of the Congo and other war-torn and perpetually impoverished nations in Africa.  I haven't gotten a review from her yet, but will try to remember to keep you posted.  I think Endangered would be a great introduction to the Congo and to bonobo apes for older middle schoolers and high schoolers.  Books set in foreign countries are few and far between, and those that spotlight modern Africa are even more sparse.

Endangered is one of five finalists for the 2012 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

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