“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." - – John Muir, as quoted in Phillip Hoose’s MOONBIRD (2012)
“Imagine all the people living life in peace” -- John Lennon (1971)
“The men said something in Swahili, then suddenly they were all moving toward me. I was nervous, but not really scared – I was only a hundred yards away from the sanctuary entrance, and if I sprinted, they wouldn’t be able to catch me before I got to safety. But then I saw one man reach down beside a tree and pick something up – a rifle. “All of a sudden the trail was full of movement. I heard a loud crack from above, and then Otto was on the ground before me. He held out his arms to make himself look bigger and stormed the men, barking loudly. They jumped and fled a ways down the path before it must have come to them that the charging monster was only two feet tall. When the men stopped, Otto lost his nerve and ran headlong back to me, nearly bowling me over when he leaped into my arms. He barked at the men, buried his head in my chest in fear, barked again, then hid his face away. “Three of the men started laughing, but the smallest one was rattled; he lifted his rifle and aimed it at us.”
By all measures, The Democratic Republic of Congo is a deadly place. Reading ENDANGERED, I am glad for not having been born there. It is a land where 5.4 million people have died over the past quarter-century in the deadliest war since WWII. (I can imagine my mouth getting me killed twice a week in a place like that.) It was into this world that fourteen year-old Sophie had been born to a Congolese mother and an American father. When she was eight, her father needed to move back to the U.S. for work and concluded that Sophie should be enrolled in American schools.
Despite his pleas, her mother would not accompany them because she has established the only sanctuary in the world devoted to bonobos. And, so, as the story begins, Sophie has begun her summer vacation with a trans-Atlantic flight from the U.S. to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is being chauffeured by one of her mother’s employees through traffic-congested, dangerous roads to the bonobo sanctuary. While on their way and nearing a checkpoint: “A man was approaching each car as it slowed.
At first I thought he was a simple beggar, but then I saw he was dragging a small creature by its arms. I crawled over the gearshift and into the front seat to see better. “It was a baby ape. As the man neared each car, he yanked upward so that it opened its mouth into a wide grin, feet pinwheeling as it tried to find the ground. The man had a lame foot but got around agilely, his scabby stump pivoting and tilting as he maneuvered. Behind him was a rusty bike with a wooden crate lashed to the back, which he must have been using to transport the ape.”
Disregarding the instructions of the chauffer, Sophie bolts from the slow-moving car, engages the man in conversation and negotiation, and pays him for the sick/starving/maimed baby bonobo ape that will be known as Otto. Otto will survive, eventually thrive, and will become Sophie’s steadfast companion and her key to breaking into bonobo society – which is one of the challenges that this teen girl will face in the horrific ordeal that is about to befall her.
The endangered bonobo apes, and the war that endangers everybody and everything, are the foundations of this fast-paced, mind-blowing survival story and historical fiction gem that was just named a National Book Award finalist in the young people’s literature category. But to me, it is a wealth of moral dilemmas that makes ENDANGERED such a rich read and elevates it above other horrors-of-war tales that are readily found in young people’s literature.
For instance, we are faced with the question of whether or not Sophie should have saved the near-to-death Otto by paying that guy. In her negotiations with him, she accidentally mentions that her mother runs the bonobo sanctuary. Not long after the transaction in which Sophie purchased Otto for what is, in that country, an astronomical sum of American cash, the same man shows up at the sanctuary with a pair of even-younger baby bonobos to sell. We learn that the man would necessarily have killed the bonobo mothers in order to gain possession of the babies, and we come to recognize that in saving Otto (and ignoring her mother’s rules that they never purchased), Sophie has been responsible for bonobo deaths.
Then, there is the issue of Sophie’s mother having chosen her work in protecting the bonobos over being a hands-on mother to Sophie. I can imagine some animated discussions over this decision. Why some may ask, when the world is so screwed up for so many people, do some of us care so much about the various domesticated and wild non-human species like these bonobos. Why not put our efforts into saving humans? In response, I might ask whether our being fascinated by and caring about the multitude of creatures with whom we share this planet is one of the very things that makes us (or makes some of us) human. And I’ve got to think that John Muir is right. It sure seems that every time we lose one of those threads, the planet looks and feels a bit more shabby for it. 272 pages
Recommended by: Richie Partington, Librarian, California USA Visit him at: Richie's Picks _http://richiespicks.com and BudNotBuddy@aol.com
Sophie is a typical young teen of divorced parents. The difference is that her mother runs a bonobo sanctuary in Africa and she is going there to spend time with her at the sanctuary in the Congo. When Sophie makes an emotional decision about an infant bonobo she names Otto, the consequences are more far-reaching than she could have imagined. Sophie and Otto find a special bond and life flows into a peaceful rhythm at the sanctuary. When the country falls into a terrifying civil war and the sanctuary is invaded by murderous rebels, Sophie barely escapes with her life and a few of the bonobos that lived there. She suddenly finds herself all alone in a dangerous country that she does not know. Sophie struggles to survive, to keep the bonobos alive and safe, and to get to her mother before it is too late to save any of them. A harrowing story that feels very real, this novel will have readers clamoring to learn more about the endangered bonobos and the conflicts that seem to constantly plague Africa’s people and wildlife.
Recommended by: Susan Grigsby, Librarian, Georgia USA