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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Escaping a brutal war. In Congo, with a bonobo. On summer vacation.

This is the sixth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Endangered, thanks to Lisa Allocca of William J. Johnston Middle School in Colchester, Ct.

It’s one thing to write an epic fantasy. It’s another entirely to write a realistic YA novel that’s genuinely epic — that takes us, say, through a constantly life-threatened adventure that makes intimately real the agonies of an African nation as it’s traumatized by yet another war.
         Then blend in an astonishing portrayal of the ways and very personal behaviors of bonobos, the ape species closest to us in genetic makeup — and tell it all through the eyes, emotions and skin sensations of a half-American teenage girl as she struggles through forest, marsh and jungle to elude violent death, or worse, with a beloved bonobo at (and on) her side. In Endangered, Eliot Schrefer does all that. And more.
        On summer break from her American middle school, 14-year-old Sophie is visiting the bonobo sanctuary her mother runs in Congo when, while mom is away on a work trip, a sudden rebellion or invasion overwhelms the country’s capital region. Predatory fighters annihilate the sanctuary staff. Only Sophie escapes, with a young bonobo, and the desperate journey the two go on is beyond capsulizing.
        Schrefer spares us no reality. Not the crazed murder sprees, the burning of corpses, or the reason for the rebellion — turns out it’s backed by First World interests that crave Congo’s minerals, to make our electronic devices. We also encounter unexpected kindness, the dignity of villagers who’ve lost everything but that, and rich description everywhere. When Sophie sees a train of refugees trudging through mud in their best clothes — “one mother was in a gorgeous red-and-green pagne wrap, her sons drowning in suits whose shoulder pads hung around their elbows” — she knows they’ve dressed up for a rescue that will never come.
        Sophie herself, as she witnesses gruesome horror, adapts to incredible privations, and coolly soldiers on, doesn’t seem much like any teenager I’ve known — but who’s to say what someone plunged into such a situation could find inside themselves? Sophie is ordinary, until she isn’t — and she’s not the story’s only hero.
        This book might be tough for some kids to absorb. But it’s not long, and its very skillful narrative makes clear and understandable the deep complexities it explores. Endangered is an unforgettable adventure, and an awe-inspiring achievement.

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