Early in Threatened, Luc goes into the Inside (the Gabon jungle) with a man who calls himself simply: "Prof." They are there to study the chimpanzees; to record their behavior; to protect and honor these animals that are humans' closest relatives. Prof's past is a mystery, but it is obvious that he has been hurt in some way by his family. Luc's mother and sister have died of AIDS; the father is missing (and presumably dead too) and the boy has escaped being a servant to an abusive bondholder. "Humans will break your heart," says Prof as he and Luc establish their camp. "The same selfishness that makes so many of us hurt the ones we love makes our species hurt creatures that it admires. To hunt and destroy chimpanzees, like they would never do to us. Our treatment of animals is a great failure of our empathy."
Author Eliot Schrefer, has not failed in the empathy department though. His love of chimpanzees is evident on every page. It is in his attention to detail. He meticulously draws the chimpanzees' physical appearance: "The bottom of his foot had no hair on it and was as brown-orange-pink as a person's." And he holds a magnifying glass to their unique movements: "Drummer reached for more branches and bent them down, pinning them in place with his feet." Through Luc's eyes, readers get a chance to see the primates in the humble and reverent way that Schrefer sees them. We hear the mud beneath Luc's feet as he tracks them. We watch as Luc breathlessly at first, comfortably later feels their shoulder blades, their hands and their hair, as he touches, grooms and holds them close. I dare anyone to read this novel and not fall in love with chimpanzees.
It is worth noting that Schrefer does not pull any punches in his depiction of these awesome creatures. Nothing is sugarcoated here. As Prof says: "Although they might hurt humans to protect themselves, they do not hunt us as a species, not the way we do to them." His jungle is not a pretty place. But it is beautiful. There is a big difference between the two.
Threatened is the second novel in a planned "Great Ape Quartet." (The first in the series, Endangered, is about bonobos and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012.) This story, which was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, is one of survival. From the very first page, it is clear that Luc has honed his living-by-wits skills out of necessity. He knows how to forage for food, how to smile at the tourists to keep his meager job at the café, and he knows, too, how to avoid the bondholder's wrath. And when he and Prof go into the Inside, he adds yet another layer to that knowledge. In the jungle, there are dangers at every turn. Leopards, snakes, scorpions, and the reason Luc and Prof are there in the first place the chimpanzees. Despite these dangers, there is something positive nestled in the thick, lush vines, cascading down the clear, cold waterfalls. Something that Luc has buried deep beneath the defensive barrier he has built: The possibility of creating a home. An opportunity to find himself.
Schrefer weaves a story that focuses on the theme of home. With gorgeous descriptions indicative of thorough research, Luc's ease in the jungle pops off the page he feels a sense of peace when the chimpanzees thump their palms on tree trunks, when he sees raindrops fat as flies, and smells pungent over-ripe mangoes. What's more, as though he's made the lush forests his home all his life, Luc knows intuitively how to find food, make traps, and administer critical first aid. The most powerful thread in Threatened is Luc's journey to find family. He sees himself in the chimpanzees and demonstrates an early connection with them:"[Mango] tried to suckle, but nothing appeared to be coming out; she winced in a look of hungry frustration that I recognized well." Later when Luc tends to a sick Prof, another monkey standing by anxiously, reminds Luc of his sister: "He was so vital, so alive, that his presence helped keep me from breaking apart," Luc says referring to Omar, the monkey. "...I felt strangely calmed by this perfectly formed hand in my own, so like my sister's had been, except for its velvet." Schrefer shines in his ability to articulate the ways in which humans and primates are alike.
Luc's greatest lesson the one that secures his ability to feel at home comes, in the end, from the chimpanzees themselves. "The chimps were rubbing off on me no time ever seemed as important to them as right now." So too, Luc grows into a person who can be still, in both mind and body - who can be present and appreciate what is here and what is now. On the Inside or on the Outside, this is a vital lesson to learn and live by.
I recommend Threatened to nature lovers, fans of survival stories, and anyone who wants a heart-racing adventure. This novel is marketed at young adults, but older folks will thoroughly enjoy it too.
This review was originally published in March 2014, and has been updated for the August 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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