Threatened - Eliot Schrefer

I need to start out by noting that I tend to avoid books about animals that look like they're being told in an overly didactic way or overly biased tone. I wasn't sure about the cover at first glance, but a friend at Scholastic told me that I just had to read it because it wasn't one of "those" books. So, having put that out there, here is my review (and don't worry, it's a good one!)

I'd never seen a mock man until the Professor showed me one. I'd heard of them, of course--many evenings the chimpanzees would scream within the dark trees surrounding my village, their cries too strange for a person and too intimate for an animal. I still hear those shrieks, these years later. Whenever they got too lout, my mother and I would huddle on the floor of our hut, her arms wrapped tight around me. "This is why you must promise always to be home before dark, Luc," she would whisper. "If you're not, you'll become one of the kivili-chempenze." The mock men.

I quickly became enthralled and horrified with the plight of Luc, Schrefer's young, twelve-year-old protagonist. Luc's mother died of AIDS and the resulting hospital debt has left Luc in the service of the slimy and manimpulative Monsieur Tatagani. One day, Luc meets Prof, an Arab researcher looking to study chimpanzees in the wild. Luc steals a case from Prof one day, and later regrets it, but before he can do anything to change the situation, Prof tracks him down and agrees to pay off his debt to Tatagani in exchange for help with his research.

The two, along with a rather energetic and adorable vervet named Omar, venture out into the jungle and travel to a remote location to set up camp. They eventually come across a trio of chimpanzees, one of whom is sick, and one of whom is just a baby. Luc names them Beggar, Drummer, and Mango. Luc becomes quite attached to Mango, and his relationship with Drummer remains complicated for much of the text. Other chimpanzees are featured throughout the novel as well, but these are the first to grace the pages of Threatened. Schrefer gives the chimps personalities of their own that will draw in younger readers, and even though their lives are not carefree by any stretch of the imagination, being witnesses to their experiences in the wild is wonderful.

What is not wonderful is the difficulties that the chimps, Prof, and Luc must overcome as they work in the wild. There are other packs of chimps who try to challenge Drummer in his own territory time and again, and there is also the threat from hunters and other human terrors. All of their lives are fraught with danger on a daily basis, but they remain connected to each other in important ways over the course of the narrative, giving readers many delightful and harrowing events to grasp onto.

Explorations of orphan street life, AIDS in the African context, and even a subplot of being gay in the closet, are all written with sensitivity and with a deft hand. There is adventure, incredible detail, and a survival story, all wrapped up in a fully realized and constructed world with strong characters. It is obvious that Schrefer is passionate about the subjects of his book, and there is a line in the Acknowledgements section that just needs to be cited here: "Animals don't need to talk or sing or wear hats or secretly be people inside to be worthy of our compassion." What can I say but, Amen!

Highly Recommended

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