It's true. My favorite animal since childhood is the gorilla. My favorite movie is King Kong (the '33 original). When I was a child, maybe five years old, I held a baby chimpanzee named Geraldine at the local zoo. She wrapped her furry arms around me and put her head on my shoulder. I was in heaven.
So I was very excited to read Eliot Schrefer's book Endangered, which concerns a teenage girl's effort to save a young bonobo (a relative of the chimpanzee) and herself during an armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Not surprisingly, given its subject matter, I loved it.
The story is as straightforward as I've described it above. The prose is luminous. The main character, Sophie, is sympathetic--part action hero, but mostly thoughtful, caring, vulnerable teen. And her bonobo companion, Otto, is every bit as vivid a character as Sophie. All the bonobos in the story are like that: distinct, lively personalities who are nearly human not only in the literal sense (bonobos share 99% of our genetic material) but in the literary and, dare I say, spiritual sense.
And that's the key conflict in the book: a conflict between those who treat life with reverence and care and those who treat other living beings, whether fellow humans or apes, as mere things to be exploited. There are powerful themes operating in the book's deceptively simple storyline, and powerful moments as Sophie has to decide whether the life of a single non-human creature holds any weight in a world plunged into chaos and death:
I thought not only about [the bonobos] but of the stream of homeless refugees, of my dead friends in the sanctuary, of the larger and yet-unknown tragedies elsewhere in the country, in the world. The creature in my arms wasn't an answer, but it did somehow make the question of how to keep going irrelevant. The weight of him, the prevention of his misery, was the answer that defied all logic.
I might quibble that these thoughts and sentences are overly sophisticated for a teen (the book's concluding chapter suggests that the entire narrative is told from the point of view of Sophie's adult self). But in a world such as ours, where not only apes but humans are endangered by our own violent ways, I found Schrefer's fictional treatment of these themes timely and welcome.
And as someone who's held a baby chimpanzee in his arms, I know exactly how Sophie feels.