Monday, October 1, 2012


By Eliot Shrefer
Scholastic, 2012
$17.99, ages 12 and up, 272 pages

Sophie's decision to rescue a baby bonobo from the black market leads her to a dark truth as she journeys across war-torn Congo to bring him to safety.

Along the way, the Congolese-American girl realizes that she would doing anything -- even risk her life walking into a militia camp -- just to protect the endangered ape.

In this powerful, beautifully written novel, Shrefer tells of 17-year-old Sophie who, in the midst of a coup, carries a bonobo named Otto across a jungle to a remote animal release site.

As the story opens, Sophie has just flown into the Congo from Florida and is in a car heading to her mother's bonobo sanctuary, when she sees a man selling a baby bonobo.

Though her driver insists she ignore the trader, Sophie sees how frail and terrified the little ape is and goes against all that her mother has taught her and pays off the man to save him.

"I lifted him easily and he hugged himself to me, his fragile arms as light as a necklace," she says. "I could make out his individual ribs under my fingers, could feel his heart flutter against my throat. He pressed his lips against my cheek...only then did I hear his faint cries."

Little does Sophie know, this emotion-driven act will put the lives of other infant bonobos at risk and will lead her to make choices that put her in the cross hairs of a revolution.

Sophie hasn't seen her mother since last summer. When she was 8, her mother and father separated, and Sophie left the Congo to live with her father in Florida. Now, as they reunite, she dreads what her mother will say when she sees Otto.

Otto is skiddish and scabbed and desperately needs care -- like many orphans who arrive at the preserve -- and Sophie knows that her mother will take him in, yet she will not be happy that he comes from a poacher.

There is a heavy cost to saving an orphan this way, her mother later scolds, because it shows poachers that there are people who will reward them for hurting animals.

When trappers capture baby bonobos, they first shoot their mothers, then rip the babies from their arms. Then they drag them to the city to be sold. Sometimes, as was Ottos fate, the trappers cut off some of the baby's fingers to sell as charms.

It is a ruthless, heartless business and now Sophie, so innocently, has become a small part of it, though it isn't until the same trapper comes to the preserve to sell her two more orphaned apes that she realizes the gravity of what she's done.

"Otto had been simple before, representing only himself," she said after the visit. "Now whenever I looked at him I'd see the image of those two little bonobos in the cage. His life stood for those other two lives. And it stood for my own guilt."
Yet there is nothing that Sophie can do to erase the damage, and even now, as she cradles Otto in her arms, she cannot regret having saved him from harm.

Over the next weeks, Otto needs constant holding and Sophie remains close. Slowly, with medicine and care, he gets stronger and soon it nears the time when Sophie must return to Florida and school. Though she will have to leave him behind, she's knows he'll be safe at the reserve.
Then one day Sophie's mother leaves for a remote jungle so that she can release some of the bonobos from captivity. The trip is earlier than she had planned, but she promises Sophie that reserve workers will get her safely to the airport.

Only that day never comes. Shortly after her mother's departure, an armed militia takes over the capitol and violence ricochets out to the countryside. Soon rebels have descended on the sanctuary and are killing every worker they see.
Sophie tears across the compound with Otto clutched to her chest and slips into a paddock. There, the rebels can't get to her, they don't know the combination to turn off the electrical fence that encloses it. But she and Otto are not out of danger.
The paddock contains female bonobos who before now only her mother could approach, and now Sophie, who hasn't nearly the finesse with animals that her mother has, must win the creatures' trust and earn a place in their hierarchy.
At first, the alpha of the group, Anastasia, charges at Sophie intimidatingly, then gradually, as Sophie acts submissively, she and the other adult females, known as The Pink Ladies, accept her presence.
Sophie knows that bonobos are the least aggressive apes, and while they may swat at each other to establish dominance, they rarely attack to kill -- though trappers have certainly given them cause to.
She also knows that Anastasia, like many of the bonobos in the enclosure, arrived at the sanctuary after being tortured and, the violence has scarred her and made her wary. What must she think of the killing outside the paddock?

Sophie wishes she could explain that she is not the same as the rebels, but bonobos only see behavior and not reason.
As days slip by, Sophie focuses on keeping her and Otto alive, and tries not to look at the slain workers now littering the grounds outside and the terrible smell of burning bodies that follows.
The two of them shadow the other bonobos, eating leaves and what fruit they can find, and wait for the rebels to leave the sanctuary.
Then one day, the electricity that protects them in the enclosure goes out, and Sophie and the apes must flee. As bullets rain down around them and one of the bonobos falls to its death, Sophie realizes these creatures have become family.
But how can she survive a revolution with a group of bonobos? And how much is she willing to sacrifice to protect Otto?
In this searing story, Sophie discovers that saving endangered animals is as complex as war itself, as she confronts the consequences of her actions and risks her life to bring Otto to freedom.

As I read this book, I was changed by it. Sophie's journey felt like my own and her mistakes felt like they could have been mine as well -- naive, well-intended, acts of the heart not logic.

It took me two nights to read it, but even as I put the story down to come back to it later, it felt like I was never fully away from it. I felt the urgency and dangers of Sophie's journey, and it felt as if no pause in my reading could ease it.

During times when I wasn't reading, the Congo remained in the background of my thoughts. At times I was looking through Sophie's eyes as she ran through the trees or blew raspberries onto Otto's foot to distract him from worry.

Sophie's presence of mind captivated me. How did she carry on so bravely in spite of the hunger, the leeches and bugs, and the violence that always seemed to be creeping up from behind her?

A country in complete chaos, rebels with machetes everywhere, and here is a teenager leading captive bonobos to safety -- deliberating on how to reach her mother and always, it seems, putting Otto first.

This is the kind of the book that transforms readers. In the end, Otto, along with the other bonobos, had not only claimed Sophie's heart, but now I realized, mine too.

No comments:

Post a Comment