Like Never Fall Down, Endangered is a book I'd have avoided if it hadn't been a Cybils nominee and a National Book Award finalist. Why? Look at the cover. To someone with my issues*, that cover screams, "DANGER! DANGER! IF YOU READ THIS BOOK, YOU ARE BOUND TO CRY ALL OVER YOURSELF. NOT ONLY IS THERE AN ANIMAL ON THE COVER, BUT THERE IS AN ENDANGERED ANIMAL ON THE COVER. READING THIS BOOK WILL BE A HEARTBREAKING (AND SNOTTY) EXPERIENCE! AVOID AT ALL COSTS!"
I was wrong.
Did it make me cry? Yes. But only at the very end, and in a more happy than sad way.
Is there much in this book to cry about? Oh, yes. But as it plays out as more of a survival story a la How I Live Now (but minus the romance)—girl risks all to make her way across a dangerous, war-torn country while caring for an innocent—than a book simply about the plight of an endangered species. Sophie is so busy trying to keep herself (and Otto the bonobo) alive that she doesn't have time for the luxury of tears.
And I was so focused on their fight for survival that I didn't, either.
Schrefer does a wonderful job of not demonizing the Congolese who see (and use) bonobos as a commodity and/or food source: Sophie is sickened by it, but she's also aware that she's looking at the situation from a very privileged, non-starving perspective, and that her worldview is completely different. Similarly, while the focus of the story isn't on the constant fighting in Congo, Sophie's trek across the country—as well as the attack that prompts it—highlights both the horrors of it and the complexity of the political landscape on a personal level as well as an international one. Additionally, there's quite a lot about culture and beliefs, racial and ethnic identity, some of which Sophie deals with directly, as she's viewed by many of the Congolese that she encounters as somewhat Other: she's an American citizen, the mixed-race daughter of Congolese woman and an Italian-American man.
All of those heavy topics, and Schrefer never crosses the line into sermonizing or didacticism.
Also fantastic is the emphasis on the painful necessity of holding ones' principles higher than ones' immediate emotions or desires: although she'd always understood the number one rule of the sanctuary on an intellectual level—never, ever buy infant bonobos from traders—Sophie learns first-hand about the consequences of breaking that rule, and ultimately has to live with the guilt of what her action ultimately set into motion.
It's not perfect—it works when Sophie gives the reader information about Congo or bonobos or what have you, but when the information is woven into dialogue, it comes off as more infodumpy and stilted, and her knowledge about her environment comes and goes in a less-than-consistent manner—but it's really, really, REALLY good. It's one that will stick with me for a long time, and I know I'll never be able hear news stories about Kinshasa without thinking about it.
*Animal books inevitably make me cry. I hate crying.