Endangered by Eliot Schrefer [ website | tweet ]
Publication Date: October 1, 2012
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: Africa, Congo, mother/daughter relationships, revolution, survival
Format read: ARC from NetGalley. (Thanks!)
Summary: It’s summer break and Sophie has returned to the Congo, where her mother lives, running a sanctuary for bonobos. Sophie keeps her distance from the bonobos mostly, but when she saves the weak Otto, she feels instantly bonded to him. Her summer turns into a journey of survival when a violent attack occurs and threatens the sanctuary and her life.
A powerful departure from a world of love triangles, high school drama, and gossip, Endangered is an addictive and emotional read about a girl named Sophie, who is visiting her mother in the Congo during her summer break. Her mother has dedicated her life to the bonobo – a chimp-like animal who is actually the human’s closest relative (we share 98.7% of the same DNA). Ironically, her mother’s dedication to keeping the bonobos safe in an enclosure she maintains has severed her own connection with Sophie.
Rightfully, Sophie doesn’t want much to do with the bonobos but when she sees one in danger, she pays to take him, and they are instantly bond. She’s not supposed to pay for the bonobos – ones taken from the Congo have been ripped from their environment because more than likely their mother has been killed – and the promise of money only inspires unscrupulous people to repeat this practice. But Otto isn’t well, and Sophie can’t bear the thought of letting him live that way.
The bond between Sophie and Otto is evident from the very beginning. At times, he feels like her child and her sibling, and as I got deeper into the story, I sometimes forgot that he was a wild animal at all. When an attack breaks out and the bonobo sanctuary is threatened, Sophie and Otto support and help each other. Schrefer has created such an environment that Endangered almost feels dystopian in ways. It’s a world that we don’t often hear about, and the book takes an intense turn when Sophie must rely on nature for survival and trust in Otto.
Lush and breathtaking, but dangerous and ominous, this novel becomes its own living and breathing entity, so much so that I had to close and reopen just to catch my breath.
Expertly, Schrefer weaves together Sophie’s own memories of her parents with the political unrest in the Congo. The parallels drawn between these animals and Sophie’s own relationship with her mother are subtly and effectively done. (“Being someone’s child was always tough, always in its own way.”) In fact, I never once thought I would have such a strong reaction to this book. But it was so incredibly relatable: the will we have to survive, the complex relationships we have with our parents, and how we might have more in common with the animal kingdom than we think.
This book is a triumph in so many ways. The first 100 pages are jam-packed with so much detail and content, I felt like I had read 200 and in a good way. I never felt overwhelmed, just thrust into this world and its characters. It’s beautiful, quotable writing and challenging too — most of the time Sophie is an observer and hanging out with bonobos so there is very little dialogue. But I never missed it. There is so much said with action and movement and small behaviors that Schrefer created his own language. In general, the author does a tremendous job of burying the cultural divide Sophie feels in the beginning (she grew up in the Congo but moved back to the U.S. with her dad) as the story moves deeper and deeper into the Congo; it makes you extremely aware of how distinctly different life can be.
As a whole, Endangered has the feel of those naturalistic but intense novels from my childhood (Lord of the Flies, Bridge to Terabithia, Julie & the Wolves) because it can be enjoyed by both sexes equally and forces great discussions, while beaming with this timeless quality. Sure, Endangered might not be the typical contemporary young adult novel that everyone flocks to, but it is certainly one that is worth stepping out of your comfort zone and experiencing; it’s the perfect balance of environment and emotion, family and connection — familiar themes in literature that are made refreshing and new.