Endangered Summary

Eliot Schrefer


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Endangered Summary

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A critically acclaimed 2012 National Book Award finalist, Eliot Schrefer’s young adult novel Endangered boldly and unsentimentally channels the coming-of-age story of its 14-year-old protagonist through the unlikely bond she forges with an orphaned primate.

On her way to spending the summer with her mother, who runs a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sophie rescues a sickly baby bonobo by buying him from poachers. Otto, as she names her adopted protégé, will become instrumental in the understanding Sophie develops for her mother’s passionate, unwavering commitment to the bonobos, which she has never quite been able to grasp. In one of the book’s several convincingly nuanced parallels between the emotional expressions and attachments of ape and human, the parental role Sophie takes on in protecting and caring for Otto becomes a conduit to reconciling her own complex feelings toward her mom. (It is worth noting that bonobos naturally coexist in matriarchal social structures, characterized by non-violent and cooperative interaction.) Her awakening as a human being comes about through an inquisitive sense of empathy as she tries to identify with Otto’s way of looking at the world.

After Sophie’s mother has left her with the sanctuary workers to take a charter flight up north and relocate a number of apes, civil war breaks out upon the assassination of the president. A week before Sophie is supposed to fly back to her father in Miami, escaping the country suddenly turns out to be a matter of life or death, yet she refuses to get out and leave Otto behind, opting instead to take him on a hazardous journey North to find her mother. Schrefer never lets the narrative devolve into schematic symbolism, but the fact that Sophie is biracial, which notably affects how she is treated by others, makes her decision to stay in the face of clear and present danger, as well as her extraordinary connection with Otto, a significant affirmation of her Congolese heritage.

Initially, the odyssey that the dynamic duo of Sophie and Otto embark upon takes them into the bonobo enclosure, where they can hide from rebel soldiers. The challenge of survival in the jungle puts the sensibility and skills Sophie has learned by observing and engaging with Otto to the test, as they seek out edible plants and insects for sustenance, build a nest to sleep in, and navigate the specifics of the bonobo hierarchy in which they immerse themselves. Schrefer is at his best describing the individual bonobos, like the matriarch Anastasia, in terms of personal traits and idiosyncrasies that make them come alive off the page. The time he spent and the direct encounters he had with the apes at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary outside of Kinshasa translate into some wonderfully vibrant prose portraits, none more so than Otto’s.

The author considers writing for teen audiences an expansive and restorative rather than limiting project, because it involves the recovery of honest, unbridled values and feelings that tend to get attenuated if not numbed in adult life. His fascinated embrace of the bonobos’ complex emotional palette, expressed without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, therefore pushes the envelope of his vision further back to nature. It’s almost a pity that the story has a retrospective narrative focus and is cast in Sophie’s grown-up voice, since that detracts somewhat from the unfiltered immediacy of her experiences.

Moreover, some of the heroics she manages – like her assuming the leadership of the bonobos or saving Otto from the clutches of the rebels – are a bit of a stretch for an adolescent who is comparative unfamiliar with her surroundings. Still, the overall incisive detail, generous spirit and well-calibrated restraint of Schrefer’s writing by far outweigh such implausibilities. Against the odds, Sophie makes her way through the war-torn countryside with Otto, and the author pulls no punches in evoking the carnage she witnesses and the threat of rape she faces. No matter how chaotic and terrifying the circumstances, though, she remains singularly, almost instinctively committed to protecting Otto and keeping him out of harm’s way.

Endangered transcends the pitfalls of anthropomorphism and cheap metaphor to bring home a powerfully moving story of growth through self-sacrifice. The irony of the title suggests that while Otto’s vulnerability may be dramatically enhanced by the hell of war he and Sophie are plunged into, it also constitutes the ‘normal’ living condition he and his kin, as well as the people of the country that encompasses their habitat, have to cope with. “The systems that devalue human life and the systems that devalue animal life are one and the same,” Schrefer has stated in an interview (with Scholastic‘s Sofia Quintero), and the antidote to this equivalence is poignantly and genuinely personalized in the many passages depicting Otto – through Sophie’s eyes – as a young individual endowed with a keen perception, probing intelligence, emotional aptitude and endless sense of wonder. The embodiment, in other words, of the best humanity has to offer.