Thursday, May 22, 2014

YA Guy Reviews... THREATENED by Eliot Schrefer

As YA Guy has probably told you, I love apes. So I was thrilled when I heard that Eliot Schrefer, whose novel about bonobos, Endangered, was a National Book Award finalist, plans to write three additional books on each of the three additional great apes: chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas.

And I'm happy to report that the second book in the series, Threatened (which deals with the bonobo's better-known cousin, the chimpanzee), is a small masterpiece, gorgeously written and profoundly moving.

Like Endangered, which I reviewed here, Threatened focuses on a young person's relationship with a great ape family--in this case, young Luc's relationship with the chimpanzees of his home country, Gabon. An orphan whose mother and younger sister died of AIDS and whose father abandoned his surviving child, Luc slaves away for a vicious debt collector to pay his mother's medical bill. But then salvation arrives in the form of a mysterious Muslim who calls himself Prof, a researcher intent on becoming Africa's answer to Jane Goodall. Though Luc joins Prof merely to escape his troubles, he forms a stronger connection to the man once they reach the jungles of Gabon and encounter a small and fragile family of chimpanzees. There Luc must decide which bonds to honor: his allegiance to Prof, or his commitment to the non-human subjects of Prof's research.

Threatened is a character-driven novel, with wonderful portraits not only of the frightened Luc and the shady, haunted Prof but of the chimpanzees whom Luc names Drummer and Mango. One of the fascinating aspects of the book is that while Prof tends to romanticize the chimpanzees, seeing them as virtuous alternatives to human depravity, Luc--and through him the author--offers a much more complex, balanced portrayal of creatures that are at once sensitive, caring, violent, and volatile. These chimps are capable of great tenderness, and also of great destruction. In other words, they're pretty much like us--as one would expect of humanity's nearest genetic relative.

The campaign for diversity in YA hasn't touched much (or at all) on inter-species diversity. But maybe it should. After all, non-human animals are among the most under-represented (and poorly represented) of populations in YA literature--and unlike human populations, they have no opportunity to tell their own stories. If the movement for diversity in YA ever does expand beyond human beings, Schrefer's wonderful novels will surely be included on any list of essential reading.

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