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.

Review: Room

Room by Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown. 2010. Borrowed copy.

The Plot: Five year old Jack lives with Ma in Room. His entire life, all he knows, is within these four walls. Rug, with the spot on it from when he was born. Bed, where he wakes up with Ma in the morning. Wardrobe, where he goes to sleep because that is when Old Nick opens the locked door, takes away the trash, bring supplies.

Jack tells his story, starting with the known World, then finding out that a world existed Outside, and finally trying to navigate a world full of people and things and smells and sounds. A story of safety and freedom, of known and unknown, and, through it all, the fierce bond he shares with Ma.

The Good: When I first heard about Room, I knew one thing. I didn’t want to read it. A woman kidnapped, raped, kept in a shed. A child born of that rape, raised in isolation. It was just too horrible to hear about, to think about. Why spend over 300 pages with the heartbreak of a woman who loses over seven years to a monster? When I read adult fiction, it tends to be mysteries or romance or historical fiction. The crime fiction I read tends to be told from the safe perspective of the police officer, the detective, the federal agent, not the victims. Even though I knew from reviews that halfway through Jack and Ma escape, I just didn’t think I could bring myself to read a story about broken people.

My friend Carlie Webber said she’d read Room and liked it, and since I respect her opinion, I borrowed her copy.

WOW. I loved, loved, loved Room. Jack, five years old, is the perfect narrator. Donoghue manages to convey not only Jack’s world view and a perspective limited by age and experience but also to give enough information for the adult reader to know more than Jack knows. We know the squeaks and gasps of Old Nick’s nightly visits is the nightly rape of Ma. We know that Jack’s self-centered desire to hold onto the familiarity of Room and his belongings from that time inflicts unbelievable pain on Ma who wants full freedom from Old Nick and Room. Having gained physical escape, Ma wants that time left in her past but to Jack, Room was never a prison. It was only a place that was safe and home — “safe” and “home” because of Ma’s strength.

Ma was kidnapped at nineteen, gave birth to Jack two years later. Instead of viewing her child as a punishment, as a part of Old Nick, as a monster’s child, Ma wanted Jack. The reader realizes that Jack saves Ma because in it gives her someone to love and care for. Ma carves out some type of normalcy for her son, and that keeps Ma from going mad. While isolated in a garden shed for years, Jack keeps Ma connected to the world. Jack doesn’t realize this, so cannot tell us, but the reader figures it out from the stories Ma tells Jack and from the daily routine she has created for her son.

Kidnapped people who escape: that is Room. Despite the “ripped from the headlines” plot, this is not a “ripped from the headlines” book. Yes, there is an escape, half way through the book, but most of the book is about the details of the life Ma and Jack share before and after. Jack’s voice and language mask the horror of the captivity, so there is never terror, there is no real sense of violence, beyond Jack’s hiding in the Wardrobe during Old Nick’s visits. Ma doesn’t scream or shout or beg. Jack never comments on it, doesn’t realize what is or is not happening, but the reader knows this is just another example of what Ma is doing to fully protect her child. So, too, does it protect the reader. There are no “true crime” details of kidnapping and torture and rape here.

Room is also about the bonds between parent and child and how love can both save and smother. Ma and Jack spend every hour of every day together. Jack is Ma’s whole life. What child wouldn’t want to be the center of his parent’s existence? This love saved Ma and saves Jack, but what happens to it Outside in a world where people don’t share one small room 24/7? Jack, like any child, has to learn to be his own person, not an extension of his mother.

In Room, Ma was a great mother because she had to be. She was focused: keep Jack safe, figure out a way to escape. Once escape happens and with that, the obligation and responsibility of being The Only One in Jack’s life ends, Ma is left with — what? Who is she now and what is her role?  She was Jack’s parent, friend, and teacher because she had to be and it is all Jack knows. Is it really selfish if, once out, Ma doesn’t want all three roles? Remember, none of Ma’s struggles are told by Ma. They are told by Jack, who just knows things have changed.

I’m hoping this makes the Alex Awards, the Award from YALSA for adult books with teen appeal. Stories about women kidnapped and held captive, some bearing children in captivity, are in the news. YA books include ones about teens who are kidnapped. How does one survive, mentally and physically, for years and years and years? Room answers this question, using fiction to tell a story true — people are resilient. They survive, battered but not permanently broken.

Because this is a story about surviving, no matter what; because it is a story of the sacrifices one can and cannot make; because it is about love, both generous and self-centered, giving and demanding, Room is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

The trailer: