Review: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2013. Library copy. NBA Shortlist.

The Plot: Raccoons Bingo and J’miah are the two newest True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp, charged to watch over the swamp and in case of emergency, wake the sleeping Sugar Man.

They’ll have to figure out how to wake him, when they realize the Swamp is threatened. Bingo and J’miah think the only threat is the dangerous Farrow Gang, wild pigs who eat and destroy everything in front of them.

Twelve year old Chap Brayburn knows about the other threat: Sonny Boy Beacoup, owner of the Swamp who doesn’t believe in the Sugar Man. Sonny Boy is joining forces with alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch to build a Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park. Sonny Boy doesn’t care it will destroy the swamp, or that Chap and his mother will be left without a home or a business, or the impact on the sugar that Chap’s mother uses to make her delicious pies. Sonny Boy doesn’t care he’s doing this just after Chap lost his grandfather. Give me a boat load of money, Sonny Boy laughs, and he’ll stop the development.

Grandpa Audie knew the swamp and its creatures better than Sonny Boy ever did. Grandpa Audie even believed in the mysterious, mythical Sugar Man. But Audie is gone, and Chap’s just twelve.

What can do raccoons do? What can a twelve year old do? You’re about to find out.

The Good: I read The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp for one reason, and one reason alone: it was on the National Book Awards shortlist. I read primarily young adult or adult books these days; and I’m not a fan of books about animals.

I am really, really glad that the NBA “made” me read this. (I also wish I had the audiobook version read by Lyle Lovett! I KNOW.)

I quickly fell in love with the raccoons. Appelt creates a whole world and mythology for them that I believed in and enjoyed. And Chap! He’s a great twelve year old. He’s trying his best to do what he can in a really tough situation. One of the things he does? Starts drinking coffee (or rather, trying) and I had to laugh at Chap’s not liking it but feeling he “had” to. Oh, and he takes the “boat load” of money literally by wanting to fill up a small boat with the money he and his mother make off of their fresh sugar pies.

But, what really won me over was the plotting. While the main stories are those of Bingo, J’miah, and Chap, the other characters and their stories are also fully fleshed out. And — eventually — all those various threads come together in one momentous event. When I went back to the start and began rereading, I was delighted to see how some of that was foreshadowed. This is a book I would love to mark up with highlighters and sticky notes, to be able to get a firmer understanding of the genius behind it. It was delightful to see how an event in Bingo’s story overlapped with Chap’s. One example, without being spoilery: as a young man, Audie spent a lot of time in the swamp. He loved the wildlife, taking photos and drawing pictures. He was especially intrigued by the maybe-extinct ivory bill woodpecker. Due to a very bad storm, Audie’s car was lost within the swamp, along with his photos.

Guess what is the home of Bingo and J’miah? If you guessed the car, you’d be right!

Chap’s mother makes her pies out of a very special type of sugar, muscovado sugar, “sweeter than honey, sweeter than maple syrup, sweeter than candied apples.” Do you want to know how badly I want a pie? And do you know how much I love that muscovado sugar is a real live thing? Because, yes, raccoons aren’t really true blue scouts and there is no such thing as a Sugar Man (he’s like Sasquatch or the Yeti), but aside from that, the history and nature in The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is true. And interesting. (Like the part about wild pigs!)

And the language! Appelt is telling us a story, and it’s written as if someone is indeed telling me a story and there was something that just felt so right about that. Comforting or safe — no, those aren’t the right words. Rather, it was the coziness of feeling as if someone was sitting next to me, sharing. It made the story seem personal; it made it seem mine.

It was tough to pull quotes to fully give the flavor, but here are some I liked:

[The two raccoons] both cracked open their eyes, they both robbed their bellies, they both noticed that the dark was growing thinner, they both reminded themselves that they were, in fact, nocturnal and morning was upon them. They both went right back to sleep. And there you have it, sports fans: two hungry raccoons with hours to go before they ate.

And this, from Chap’s cat: “then again, there was the whole hair ball thing. Humans. They had such weak stomachs.”

That tone! That voice! That humor!

I should point out at this point that while animals are point of view characters, they are always animals. Chap’s cat doesn’t “speak” to him, even though we know it’s thoughts.

This is a Favorite Book of 2013. And friends, since it’s about animals – -that tells you something.

Other reviews: BookEnds, a Booklist blog; The New York Times; Author Interview at SharpRead; Nerdy Book Club.

 

Review: Endangered

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer. Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sophie, 14, is in Congo (the Democratic Republic of Congo) visiting her mother, who runs a sanctuary for bonobos. During the school year, she lives with her father in America.

Sophie saves a young bonobo who she names Otto; she cares for him, beginning to understand, a bit, why her mother does what she does; why, when her American born father’s company transferred him back to the United States six years ago, her Congolese mother chose to remain in her country and not go with her husband and daughter.

Sophie’s mother is in a remote part of the country, leaving Sophie and the sanctuary workers behind caring for the bonobos, when violence breaks out. An armed revolution has begun. Sophie’s American father and American passport may save her, give her a way to escape the violence, but Sophie cannot bring herself to abandon Otto. Sophie decides to stay with Otto. When the sanctuary itself is attacked, Sophie has to figure out a way to save herself and Otto.

The Good: I’ll be honest; this is another book that I was nudged to read because of it being named a finalist for the National Book Awards. Here, the reason is that I looked at the cover and thought, “animal book,” and I am not an animal person. No, really, despite sharing the house with three cats, six chickens, seven hermit crabs, two ant farms and (on a temporary basis) a bearded dragon. Plus, technically, the crickets that the bearded dragon eats.

So, yes, this is an “animal book” in that Sophie rescues and cares for Otto, a bonobo (a great ape, not a chimpanzee). Endangered will deliver what readers who want animal books want: the bonobos are front and center. The reader learns a lot about bonobos, why they are in danger (the violence in the country they live, as well as hunters and poachers), why a sanctuary is needed for them, why humans (such as Sophie) care for bonobos, how the bonobos interact with one another, and efforts to have the bonobos live in the wild without being in danger from humans. Endangered provides this information but never dumps it on the reader; it is always conveyed as part of the story, of what either Sophie is learning or observing as she takes care of Otto.

The bonobos live in Congo; and the situation there isn’t simple. As Sophie says at the start, “The Democratic Republic of Congo: Where Even the Bullet Holes Have Bullet Holes.” Sophie was born there, raised in the capital of Kinshasa for her first eight years, and now returns every summer. She is half American, and half Congolese, and Schrefer paints a portrait of a girl who is both insider and outsider in both worlds she lives in. In the States, she’d “been the only African girl in the whole school. I’d gotten plenty of looks, with my plastic slippers and hair whose kinkiness I hadn’t decided whether to embrace or fight.” In Congo, she is sometimes called “mundele,” because “any white person was called a mundele. It was a sarcastic way to paint anyone who as white as stuck-up. While my dad is white, my mom is black.”

By having Sophie be part American and part Congolese, Sophie has insider knowledge of what is happening in Congo and the history of that region and language. It also makes her enough of an outsider that when she ends up her own, with Otto, she has to be careful when she meets others Congelese. A revolution is going on, and she knows she is at risk, as a female and as an American. Endangered is a look at a country, it’s history and people and complexities. It’s not all violence and bullets — far from it. More on that below.

When the revolution breaks out, Sophie does not take advantage of the escape offered because of her passport because she refuses to abandon Otto. On one level, it’s because of her tight bond with Otto; go deeper, and it’s Sophie’s sense of responsibility because she fears that Otto has so bonded with her that he will not survive without her; go even deeper, and it’s about Sophie’s own issues from having been “abandoned” by her mother when her mother chose the bonobo sanctuary over moving to America with her husband and daughter. Sophie sacrifices safety and comfort to protect Otto. Endangered is also a coming of age story as Sophie matures, growing in understanding and acceptance of her mother’s own choices (including the realization that the choices weren’t simple) as well as her own choices in deciding to risk so much for a bonobo.

The risks of being in the middle of an armed conflict — Schrefer handles this with a perfect touch. The violence and risks are clear from the first page (bullet holes have bullet holes); and, yes, people are killed. People Sophie cares about are killed. There are scenes that are heart-breaking, but Schrefer knows just what to say and what not to say to portray the danger while not being unnecessarily graphic. For example, Sophie often observes the risks a girl faces alone. At the start she is in guarded areas, and later on she has to figure how to hide from others. Sophie never specifies that what she fears is sexual assault and rape.

Endangered becomes the ultimate survival story when Sophie refuses to leave Otto. The sanctuary is attacked, and Sophie escapes into the bonobo enclosure that is protected by an electrified fence. She is safe from the armed combatants but can hear the gunfire and screams; she has also locked herself into an enclosure with adult bonobos who may see her, a human, as a threat. There is no food, no shelter, and she has to care for Otto. As time passes, the enclosure no longer is safe and Sophie is forced into the countryside, trying to find a way to get to her mother.

As mentioned earlier, Sophie has much to fear, as a young girl traveling alone; as a person travelling with a bonobo that some may view as a food source. Sophie meets people as she travels, people who help, people she has to hide from. The diversity of the people of Congo is shown in her travels, as well as the staff at the sanctuary; while Sophie is caught in the midst of a revolution, it’s quite clear that Congo is more than a place of violence. One of the things I really liked about Endangered is the way it portrayed Congo and its people and its history. Sophie being forced outside the sanctuary and enclosure is another example of how Endangered is has multiple layers: the surface one of Sophie and Otto’s journey; the deeper one of Sophie being forced out of her childhood, having to rely only on herself, not on parents or friends or country.

I don’t want to spoil what happens, or give away the ending, because I know many people read to find out what happens. I will say that I liked how Sophie’s journey ends; I love the woman she becomes; I like that the ending is hopeful but not unrealistic and that what happens with Otto is likewise true to the situation rather than a Hollywood movie.

Endangered is easily one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012, because I adored Sophie even when I was yelling at her about her choices. I’ll be honest, I’d have gotten into the van for the airport and waved good-bye to Otto. This is a favorite book because despite being the non-animal person I ended up caring for Otto, and understanding why Sophie and her mother do what they do. More reasons I love this book: because I learned about the situation in Congo and the impact of wealthy foreigners on that country; because Sophie was smart and a survivor; because of the suspense and tension about what was going to happen to both Sophie and Otto; and because no easy, simple answers were given about Sophie, the bonobos, Congo, or the Congolese.

Other reviews: Educating Alice; A Patchwork of Books; Bookshelves of Doom; and The New York Times Book Review.