Reviewed March 19, 2013.
Scholastic Press, New York, 2012. 264 pages.
2012 National Book Award Finalist
2013 School Library Journal's Battle of the Books Contender
Endangered is the only Battle of the Books contender this year that I hadn't already read. I'm glad I finished it before it's out of the Battle. And, dare I say it?, now I find myself hoping it pulls an upset over The Fault in Our Stars. Though I don't want it to beat my favorite, Code Name Verity in the next round, and The Fault in Our Stars is bound to come back from the dead anyway, so this doesn't feel like a very fateful prediction.
But Endangered is a gripping, powerful, and suspenseful story that feels like it's teaching you at the same time. I knew nothing about bonobos and very little about Congo or life in Congo. Eliot Schrefer writes with authenticity that sure makes the reader think he knows what he's talking about.
I already had an idea of the story. Sophie was visiting her Mom on a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Without asking permission, she adopted Otto, a baby bonobo being sold on the side of the road. Later, her Mom heads out to release some adult bonobos at a safe location in the wild, but while she is gone, war erupts. UN peacekeepers try to take Sophie to safety, but Sophie won't leave Otto to die.
What follows is an epic journey. Because war comes to the sanctuary. Sophie takes refuge in the electrified enclosure with the adult bonobos, so her first challenge is to be accepted by them. But when the electricity goes off, she knows she must escape before the soldiers come in to kill them all. Can she travel through the jungle and find her mother, miles away?
This book is a survival tale, a frightening story of war, and full of authentic details about bonobos and life in Congo.
At first, I was a little annoyed with Sophie for seeming more concerned about bonobo life than human life. But as the book went on, I came to feel that someone needed to care about "the least of these." When another opportunity came up for her to go to safety if she abandoned Otto, but she had clear evidence he would die if she did, I was by then fully on Sophie's side in continuing on with Otto.
Sophie's journey takes her from one danger to another. But she never feels unduly lucky. There are many setbacks. Some she deals with better than others, and she does end up finding kind strangers who help along the way, after initial help from the bonobos. It's hard to write a series of narrow escapes and still have the reader feel like it could happen, but Eliot Schrefer pulls it off. It all feels believable and terribly scary.
During a quiet moment it struck me that Congo was an easier country to survive in than most during a time of war. In peacetime the teacher couldn't afford to buy food at the markets, which meant he had a field, and snares for wild game, and a well for water since the government had never run pipes out here. I tried to imagine getting by if the same thing happened in Miami and couldn't. When a country was as primed for civil war as Congo was, when it came apart, the pieces weren't as heavy.