If Endangered had not been a National Book Award Finalist a couple years ago, I may have never discovered Eliot Schrefer and that would have been sad, because I love his writing. I just don't tend to gravitate toward books like Endangered (my thoughts) and his latest, Threatened. As I said in my last review, I don't do survival stories, especially if they have anything to do with animals, so the fact that Schrefer is able to keep and hold my interest and, more importantly, make me care and feel every bit of these tense situations is a testament to the fine writing in these books.
When he was a boy, Luc's mother would warn him about the "mock men" living in the trees by their home -- chimpanzees whose cries would fill the night.
Luc is older now, his mother gone. He lives in a house of mistreated orphans, barely getting by. Then a man calling himself Prof comes to town with a mysterious mission. When Luc tries to rob him, the man isn't mad. Instead, he offers Luc a job.
Together, Luc and Prof head into the rough, dangerous jungle in order to study the elusive chimpanzees. There, Luc finally finds a new family -- and must act when that family comes under attack.
In Endangered Schrefer took us out of our comfort zone and into war torn Congo. That book has a protagonist who grew up in the US giving readers at least some connection to the life she had. Seeing Africa through the eyes of someone with a similar paradigm made the story seem more comfortable, at least starting out. In Threatened Schrefer takes this last bit of comfortable connection to US readers away, and it works beautifully. Luc is an AIDs orphan working to pay off his dead mother's hospital debt to a moneylender. The story is told in first person from by him and a couple sentences was all it took for me to fall completely into the spell of his voice and story. I have no concept of Luc's reality. I've never seen most of the things he describes and I can not come close to imagining the life he lives, which is why I appreciate this book. It is a window into a world I will probably never in my comfortable life even glimpse. Luc is someone I felt like I knew even after a few brief pages though. His voice pulled me into his world and I felt as though I was right there with him. Schrefer has a real talent for making you feel a character's emotions and experiences. It isn't just Luc's world in Gabon that the reader is pulled into though, it is also the world of the chimpanzees in the jungle, or as Luc calls it "the Inside". And here is where the writing really impressed me because I never thought I could come to love a group of chimpanzees and see their individual personalities like I did the ones in this book. When I say I am not an animal person, I honestly mean I don't think about them unless they're right in front of me for some reason and then my attention is brief, so that I found my self growing attached to fictional apes is a testament to the skill of the author telling their story. From adorable baby Mango to her fierce older brother Drummer to the patron of the clan, I found myself by turns fascinated by, concerned for, and troubled with their lives. The man who brings Luc into the jungle goes by the name of Prof and he is also an intriguing character. The small details of his life that are revealed make him into a nuanced and deep character. His intentions are good, his methods are not always. Of course all of the information on the other characters is coming from Luc and his voice has so much power that he made me feel the doubts, hesitations, loyalties, and tenderness he was feeling towards all of them.
The jungle setting of the book is eerily beautiful. Schrefer's vivid imagery brings the place to lush hot life. I found myself swatting at imaginary bugs and feeling like things were crawling on me more than once. While not exactly pleasant, I am impressed by how immersed I was in every aspect of the book. This is a story of the relationship between man and his environment and the creatures who share that environment. Schrefer does an excellent job at highlighting the similarities between humans and chimpanzees and through this highlighting the dangers facing the chimpanzees in the wild. Never does the book take on a didactic or self-righteous tone though. All this is told through Luc and ultimately it is the story of him finding a family he loves and wants to protect. I think this is summed up perfectly in a quote spoken in the book by the Prof: "You know, when you think about it, all survival stories that end happily are also family stories."
I read an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic, at ALA Midwinter. Threatened is on sale February 25.