If Endangered by Eliot Schrefer had not been named as a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, I probably would not have been inclined to pick it up. So thank you NBA committee. Endangered is a complex book, and as a result my feelings about it are complex. It is well deserving of its finalist status and is a powerful story.
Sophie spends her school year living with her American father in Miami. She spends her summer living with her mother in the Congo, her mother's native country, where she runs a sanctuary for the endangered bonobos. Bonobos are endangered and Congo is the only place they still live in the wild. Sophie finds herself the surrogate mother of a young bonobo she names Otto and spends her summer caring for him. Right before she is scheduled to leave again there is a coup and violence erupts in the nearby capital, quickly making its way to the sanctuary. Sophie is forced to flee into the jungle with some of the bonobos and begins a perilous journey to the remote village where her mother had recently gone.
What visions come to your mind when you hear the word Congo? If you pay any sort of attention to the world they shouldn't be pleasant ones. Schrefer did an amazing job portraying it in a book with all of its complexities. It is violent. It is beautiful. The imagery used to describe the places Sophie goes paints a vivid picture in the reader's mind of what she is seeing. It is honest without being gruesomely graphic. It is filled with horror without being horrific. He also did a good job of laying out the complexity of the social, economic, and political forces at work. Sophie, born in the Congo and living in the USA, has an unfolding understanding of her own country. At the beginning of her story she thinks: I knew there was great stuff about Congo. The second-largest rain forest in the world, wildlife everyone else gets to see only in the alphabet animals that hang over children's cribs. Brilliant greens, blues, and reds only your imagination could match. A lively, loving people. It was just that those same people occasionally took up their machetes and chopped one another up by the millions, and those vibrant red shades weren't only from blossoms pouring off sun-soaked tree branches. During my childhood, Congo was the best place in the world because it was the only place in the world. Now I really got why someone would want to live somewhere else if she had the option. Her opinion of her homeland is substantiated by much of what happens to her, but also challenged. This is drawn out and done in subtle ways throughout the story.
Sophie is a wonderful narrator. It is easy to slip into her story and come to care for the people she cares for. Even when I couldn't understand nor agree with the decisions she made, I was sympathetic to her plight. There are times when her narration or the dialogue becomes a little text book, sounding like something you would find in a text book, but then Schrefer ends the passage with a humorous comment or piece of imagery that makes it all worth it and completely forgivable.
Note on Content for Concerned Parents: Schrefer doesn't pull any punches with the truth, but he is not graphic in his descriptions. I would say that mature readers in the MG range would get much from reading this. Rape is alluded to, as is the possibility of that fate for Sophie.
I read a copy of this most happily received via NetGalley from Scholastic. Endangered is available in stores now.