The OF Blog: 2012 National Book Award finalist in Young People's Literature: Eliot Schrefer, Endangered

Saturday, November 03, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Young People's Literature: Eliot Schrefer, Endangered

"The roads are so terrible that, unless they get fuel for airplanes, the combatants can't easily get around the country.  Which means the revolution is happening only in the towns and cities that they happen to hit.  The old government wasn't in touch with the rural areas, anyway – there, life is probably going on as though the attack never happened.  Some of them probably think we're still Belgian.  Some of them probably don't even know the Belgians ever came.  Any undeveloped region would be safer than here in the middle of the revolution."

Revolution.  A momentous new word for all of this.

Otto shrieked when one of the boys roughhoused him, then mounted a counterattack by standing on his hands and falling into his new playmate.  They tumbled to the ground, the boy laughing and Otto making his pleased raspy sound as he got a gloppy handful of mud and smooshed it into the kid's thigh. (pp. 139-140)

Out of the five finalists for the 2012 National Book Awards for Young People's Literature, Eliot Schrefer's Endangered appealed the least to me when I read the synopsis of a based-on-experiences fiction set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo revolving around endangered bonobos, who along with chimpanzees are the closest living genetic relatives to human beings.  Too frequently, the human aspect is simplified or distorted into this sort of "exotic geography porn," where the illusion of great breadth is created at the expense of any true depth, not to mention the distortion of complex social issues that leads to further stigmatizing of local cultures.  There are only so many "Wild Africa" stories that one can read before they all run together into this mish-mash of paternalistic attitudes that dehumanize the social/demographic pressures in the region in the attempt to create this narrative of "pristine wilderness under threat from benighted native encroachment."

Schrefer is acutely aware of this, or at least the afterword and the interview that accompany the novel part of Endangered reflect this awareness of the harm done by categorizing local cultures into this sort of threatening, primitive force.  There lurks within Endangered the seeds of another tragedy, that of the decades of civil war and its uncertain aftermath for the Congolese peoples, and while Schrefer's tale does not focus on them, it also does not neglect to note the intricacies involved in a very impoverished country where the equivalent of $50 for a dead bonobo can mean the difference between a family having the food and supplies it needs and their survival.

Endangered revolves around the growing affection that young Sophie, who reluctantly has tagged along with her mother to a bonobo sanctuary, and the young bonobo Otto (named after the Italian number "eight" rather than the German personal name).  When a revolution breaks forth and civil war sweeps the countryside, both Sophie and Otto are at grave risk, for different reasons.  The main plot of the novel focuses on their flight into the jungle and their attempt to return to civilization.

The action unfolds at a brisk clip, with an economy of words used to describe the action.  Sophie is the narrative "window" into which readers view the world around her:  a lush, mineral-rich land, where there is little need for competition among the wildlife (which some speculate might be a cause in the behavioral differences between the more pacific bonobos and the fiercer chimpanzees that live north of the broad Congo River), yet the disparate human groups fight for control of the mineral wealth of the region.  As Sophie and Otto traverse the hinterlands of the Congo, they come across people who help them despite the risk to themselves, others who see profit at the expense of humanity, and through it all, there are some rather sobering lessons about what sacrifice entails and what motivates humans (and bonobos) to act in their own fashions.

If there is a flaw to Endangered, it would be that there are times where Sophie feels too detached from the immediacy of the events around her.  In using her as a window into the fierce, tragic world of suffering humans and the bonobos that they often kill or capture in order to raise money for their families, her PoVs sometimes feel a bit too stiff and unnatural, as if she were distancing herself from  what is occurring.  While some detachment perhaps is necessary in order for the readers to understand the complexities of the events that are transpiring, this occurs too often, creating artificial lulls in the action and a distraction from the themes of sacrifice and humanity that Schrefer appears to be exploring within the novel.

Endangered is a good YA novel despite this major irritation.  It would appeal most to middle school readers, as some of the events, particularly the civil war/revolution scenes, would dovetail nicely with a 6th or 7th grade Eastern/World Geography course similar to the ones I used to teach when I taught middle grades social studies years ago in Florida.  Schrefer's mixture of fact and fiction, with the notable exception already mentioned above, would captivate those who are fascinated with both the large primates of Africa and those who appreciate a good action-packed novel of escape and discovery.  Compared to the other 2012 National Book Award finalists for Young People's Literature, however, Endangered is around the middle of the pack in terms of narrative quality and characterization, two elements that are vital for middle school readers' enjoyment.  This is not to say that it is a mediocre novel (if I were teaching a unit on Africa, I certainly would not hesitate to suggest the book as a supplement for those voracious readers who may want to read more on the wildlife of the region), but rather than in a field crowded with excellent writers, its sometimes-detached narrator may be less appealing to its target audience.

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