By Eliot Schrefer
Published by Scholastic, 2012
Ages: 14+, with some sensitive subject matter
Fiction, 253 pages
Themes: Congo, civil war, bonobo, endangered species, survival, conservation, apes, adventure
Opening: Concrete can rot. It turns green and black before crumbling away. Maybe only people from Congo know that. There was a time when I didn’t notice this sort of thing. When I was a little girl living here.
Synopsis: Sophie is a spunky, honest and intelligent fourteen year-old. She is biracial, with an Italian American father and Congolese mother, who are divorced. Though in high school in the US, she spends her summers at her mother’s bonobo sanctuary just outside Kinshasa, trying to bond with her distant mother, but also sharing her mother’s passion for these endangered apes. The day of her arrival for her summer stay, she makes a poor judgment call, though out of compassion, and we find her in the opening pages bonding with a young, rescued, orphan bonobo, named Otto.
When the war hits Kinshasa, a day after her mother has left to release some bonobos elsewhere in Congo, everything changes for Sophie as the story develops into one of her own flight and survival rather than just the saving of one baby bonobo. Sophie has to grow up rapidly if she’s going to survive this insurgency. When rebels take over the capitol, and move on to destroy and pillage the villages and the sanctuary, Sophie, who should have gone on a UN transport, finds herself locked in a “safe” electrified jungle zone with some bonobos. But once the electricity is down, she is no longer safe from the rebels, who have killed most of her mother’s coworkers. Her long journey to find her mother who is at a release site is fraught with the inevitable dangers of a young female girl in a war zone. The way she encounters each challenge is what makes this story unique.
Why I like this book: Having lived through an attempted coup d’état in Togo, and having observed the conflict in neigbouring West African nations, as well as being a passionate advocate for endangered species, I opened this book with excitement and trepidation. It is extremely difficult to even begin to present to anyone the horrific and complicated conflicts such as what happened in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast or the food crises and conflicts in recent years in Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as what is still happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Also as a passionate animal advocate, I recognize it is also very difficult for outsiders who focus on animal welfare, to comprehend the needs of a people in the depths of poverty. I could not put this book down and read it in two days. Schrefer’s research is impeccable, and while he takes pains to indicate this is fictional, he has crafted an outstanding work about a central African nation, about the bonobo species, and about the complex and relationship we humans have with the world around us, and how context is vital in interpreting events and actions.
The narrative is gripping from page one and Sophie faces horrific challenges in a credible way as a mature biracial teen with a dependent. Does Otto save Sophie, or Sophie save Otto? I don’t know, but from what I have read about the bonobo, the relationship Shefer develops between to toddler ape and adolescent is enchanting and realistic. This relationship between a peace-loving ape and its surrogate mother, and this growing bond, are the focus of the narrative against the backdrop of the typical violence, fear, violation and desperation that a corrupt, weakened war-torn nation brings. Sophie’s courage, wisdom, maturity and tenacity win over the reader from the early pages, when she won’t abandon Otto to be airlifted to security. Amongst the decimation and evil, there are also some samaritans along the way, who, as is so often my experience in developing nation, share their little to help Sophie and Otto.
It is artfully written and I felt myself re-experiencing the humidity and insect-infestation of the jungle, the dry manioc fields, the hollow sunken faces of people starving to death. This remind me of the Patty McCormick novels I have read, and won’t leave a reader unchanged. I feel Schrefer pulled off exceptionally well the challenging task of depicting an authentic Italian-American/Congolese teenager, though I confess occasionally some of Sophie’s socio-political awareness seemed very advanced for a fourteen year-old. Endangered is a gutsy, suspenseful, moving adventure story of survival that that will linger long in your heart. The book engaged my emotions and intellect, which I love. I think this will remain one of my favorite books of 2013. I highly recommend it, to teens and adults, male and female. It truly is the sort of book I would like to write!
An author’s note, Q&A session about the book and details about inspiration and research both into Congolese history and bonobos, are valuable resources at the back of the book. In the interview, Schefer is asked whether it’s ethical to concern ourselves with the mistreatment of animals when humans are in crisis. He responded that the same people who are cruel toward animals will also be cruel to humans that they believe have a lower status, and that it’s essentially the same problem.
Bonobo Facts and Status:
Bonobos are found only within the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. Together with common chimpanzees, they are man’s closest living relatives. Unlike chimpanzees, they are a peaceful and matriarchal society. Sex is an everyday affair in bonobo society, and is liberally used to create bonds between individuals, as well as for reproduction. That said, during periods of rest grooming is the activity of choice, and is thought to provide group cohesion and ease tension. Bonobos are born helpless, and females provide the majority of the parental, since paternity is usually unclear.
There are no concrete data on population numbers, but the estimate is between 29,500 and 50,000 individuals. The species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and is threatened by habitat destruction and human population growth and movement, though commercial poaching is the most prominent threat.
Resources quoted in the book:
Bonobo Conservation Initiative: www.bonobo.org
Terese and John Hart: www.bonoboincongo.com
Friends of Bonobos, the nonprofit behind Lola Ya Bonobo: www.friendsofbonobos.org
You can find out more about the author, Eliot Schefer, on his website.