When my 14-year-old son saw that I was reading Eliot Schrefer’s novel Endangered he rolled his eyes and said, “Mom, our teacher tried to read us that book last year and no one liked it – not even her.” Connor is a voracious reader and we have often read and enjoyed the same books so I have to admit that I was skeptical as I started this book.
Fourteen-year-old Sophie is visiting her mother in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Her parents are divorced and she has been living with her father in Miami since she was eight, but it’s the summer holidays and so she is visiting with her mom at the bonobo sanctuary her mother runs in Kinshasa. Bonobos are a member of the ape family and they are endangered. Bonobos, as it turns out, are our closest relatives, “sharing over 98.7 percent of our DNA.” Adult bonobos are often killed for food; babies are kidnapped and sold on the black market. It is just such an encounter that starts Sophie’s story.
The little ape sat down tiredly in the dirt and lowered his arms, wincing as his sore muscles relaxed. I kneeled and reached out to him. The bonobo glanced at his master before working up the energy to stand and toddle over to me. He leaned against my shin for a moment, then extended his arms to be picked up. I lifted him easily and he hugged himself to me, his fragile arms as light as a necklace.
Sophie’s mother is none-too-happy when her daughter arrives at the sanctuary with the bonobo. Not because Sophie rescued the bonobo, but because she didn’t follow the proper protocol and that could cause more trouble down the road. But Sophie has fallen in love with the little bonobo she names Otto and their relationship sustains them through the difficult times ahead.
In the beginning I found Endangered a little didactic. Admittedly, I knew nothing about bonobos and even less about the scary situation in the DRC, but the way the information was relayed to the reader – via Sophie – just didn’t feel organic. Thankfully, Schrefer didn’t spend a lot of time instructing us. When the Congo’s president is assassinated and rebels flood into the area Sophie’s peaceful existence at the sanctuary crumbles. That’s when things get really interesting.
Sophie is a remarkably resilient character. Despite the fact that she has been leading a relatively privileged life in the States for the past six years, she hasn’t forgotten where she came from. As she and Otto travel through the jungle and up the Congo river to find her mother (who had left just before the coup to take some bonobos to an island release site), my heart was really racing. I mean, this war (despite being fictional) is based on decades of bloody conflict and although Schrefer stays away from the truly graphic, one only has to use their imagination to imagine the atrocities Sophie and Otto encounter on their way.
And don’t even get me started on the subject of Sophie’s bond with Otto. If even half of what transpires between them is true, bonobos are beyond remarkable; they’re us.
Con, honey, I respectfully disagree with your assessment of this book.