Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In Danger of Breaking My Heart

Life for the bonobos and other great apes in Africa has always been tumultuous, but when people are starving, they will do anything to feed their families. Now the bonobos, the "lesser" chimpanzees, are endangered and in Eliot Schrefer's novel Endangered, he explores the love and risks involved in protecting these beautiful animals in the midst of a terrifying civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sophie has spent her summers in the Congo with her mother ever since her father relocated her to the US to go to school. While it is a culture shock, those summers with her Congolese mother at the bonobo sanctuary are something she looks forward to. But this summer is different. On her way to the sanctuary, she sees a trafficker witha  near-dead bonobo baby, trying to sell him to people driving by. Unable to bear the thought of what could happen to the baby, Sophie does the worst thing she can do: she buys him from the man. Once you establish that precedent, there is nothing to stop the trafficker from going back into the jungle and taking more bonobo babies, even though it means killing all the adults it was with. Sophie knows her mother will be mad and this will create problems int he future, but she couldn't see past the despair and desperation in that little baby's eyes.

Her mother certainly is mad, but she makes the baby Sophie's responsibility. Named Otto, he struggles on the long, hard road back to health at the sanctuary. Sophie knows she should be acclimating him to another human as she is flying back to the US in a few short days, but she can't bear to be separated from Otto. When her mother travels north to deliver adults to the wild sanctuary, Sophie finds herself alone and caught in her worst nightmare: a coup. While she should have evacuated, she can't imagine leaving Otto behind. Hiding in the adult bonobo enclosure, she manages to live undetected for weeks while the rebels take over the sanctuary and kill all the people she knew and loved. But once the power to the electrified fence is cut-off, she knows she has to escape. How is a single teenaged girl going to escape with a baby bonobo in tow? And where do you go in a country that has been torn apart from the inside out?

Oh. Oh, boy. This story was so beautiful and so powerful, it has actually left me speechless. I had the privilege of meeting Eliot Schrefer at an author function a few years ago, and knowing what a funny, light-hearted man he is, I am even more blown away by this amazing, powerful story. The even more fascinating thing is that he took an incredibly violent and terrifying setting, and he managed to show the impact of the violence while still writing a story that could be read by a wide range of ages. For instance, he hints that death would be better for Sophie than being captured by the rebels, but for a younger reader, this subtlety would easily go over their heads: not forcing them to understand the culture and violence of rape behind the coup in order to understand the story, but still including this terrifying and important part of the story in a way that older readers would pick up on. It was masterfully done, and makes this book appropriate for students who aren't necessarily ready for the full terrors of such a war, but still should learn about the kind of life being lived in that part of the world. I am not sure how Schrefer managed to do this so seamlessly and beautifully, but I am grateful for it, because I can pass this book onto more and more of my students.

The conflict itself, Schrefer explained, was fictional, but based off previous conflicts. It felt so real and the terror that girl must have felt was palpable. But the story is really about Sophie and the bonobos. The descriptions of the bonobos are so amazing, it is clear Schrefer spent a great deal of his own time in the Congo studying them. The plight of these amazing apes that share so much of our DNA is one of the most shameful parts of our society. But Sophie, obviously trying her best to save Otto and the other bonobos, often considers the idea that any efforts to save the animals are efforts that aren't going to save the thousands of humans dying all around her. Having seen her friends killed around the sanctuary, she knew the full impact of the danger these people were in, and how the bonobos are no longer the focus. But still, she can't think past the immediate concern in her own life, and that is Otto. A poor boy who has suffered enough in his life, and she, the girl who saved him, can't imagine letting him down. It was beautiful. She understood what was going on around her, but her love for Otto kept her from saving herself when she couldn't take him with her. 

I am not ashamed to tell you that this book really made me cry. I cried for the bonobos, the people of the Congo, for Sophie and all she saw that would forever change her, and for the world that continues to sit by and watch conflicts like this happen. Our students have the privilege of not having to grow up so soon like poor Sophie did, but they also have the responsibility of knowing what is happening around the world they live in. This is a beautiful book, and it is not hard to imagine why it was a National Book Award finalist. After reading the Q&A and the Author's Note at the end of the book, it was clear that this book was Schrefer's way of bringing life to these people and these apes. He had to abandon all he knew about the world and the safety of his own life to travel to the Congo, and I am glad he did, because it brought us this beautiful, heartbreaking story. I know I was changed by Endangered, and I am sure you will be too.

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