Eliot Schrefer's previous novel, ENDANGERED (a finalist for the National Book Award), was set in the Congo and focused on a girl who befriends a bonobo and must help the two of them survive in the wake of deadly violence. Schrefer himself admits in an afterword to THREATENED, his new novel, that chimpanzees "got a bad rap" in ENDANGERED. "Compared to the peaceful, matriarchal bonobos, they seemed like abusive villains," Schrefer writes. What won him over, he notes, was reading Jane Goodall's memoirs, which helped him gain understanding of the complex chimp society and recognition of the apes' commonalities (for better or for worse) with their closest relatives, humans.
In THREATENED, Schrefer explores these common ties through the character of Luc, a boy growing up on the streets in the African country of Gabon. Having lost the rest of his family to AIDS, Luc has grown up fending for himself, working odd jobs to repay the debt he owes to Monsieur Tatagani, in whose home he sleeps at night. A botched attempt to rob a man passing through town results not in an arrest, as Luc had feared, but in a job offer --- Prof, as the man asks to be called, is headed into the jungle to study chimpanzees and needs a research assistant. Luc is terrified of the chimps --- one of his most vivid memories of his mother is her story that the chimps are "mock men," that they are what people turn into if they stay out too late at night.
[Schrefer] does a beautiful job… showing that what we have in common with our ape relatives might be more fundamental and essential than anything keeping us apart.
But when Prof pays off his debt to Monsieur Tatagani, Luc can hardly turn down the offer, and he soon finds himself headed deep into the jungle, to a place where few Gabonese go. Soon, Luc ad Prof find the chimpanzee colonies they seek --- but they also come across evidence of human threats to these intelligent, complicated creatures.
Luc's affections (and the reader's too) are immediately drawn to the baby chimp he names Mango, an orphan like himself whose cute antics and need for protection make her easy to love. Less loveable is Mango's older (and much more threatening) brother, whom Luc names Drummer. Drummer can be violent, changeable and downright scary, but perhaps he and Luc need each other as well. Luc's time with the chimpanzees helps this lonely boy understand more about the meaning of family and about his own need for love. Schrefer doesn't pull any punches in describing the fiercely competitive, often violent chimpanzee society, nor the human threats to it, but he also does a beautiful job of arousing readers' sympathies for these creatures and in showing that what we have in common with our ape relatives might be more fundamental and essential than anything keeping us apart.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 19, 2014