Book Review: Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

Eliot Schrefer’s Threatened reads like a thematic sequel to his 2012 National Book Award finalist Endangered. Both books tell the story of a teenager who leaves human society in Africa for the jungle and the company of other hominines. Where Endangered focused on a Congolese girl’s life changing journey with bonobos, Threatened moves east to Gabonese AIDS orphan, Luc, and his voyage into the jungle to study chimpanzees with a mysterious Egyptian professor. When the professor, Luc’s last link to the human world, disappears in the middle of the night, Luc finds himself turning to two similarly orphaned chimpanzees in his desperation for a family.

There are many things to admire in this novel. I appreciated Schrefer’s uncommon choice of a male protagonist in the young adult genre. It’s urban legend among writers that books with a young, male narrator can’t sell, and ironically their scarcity makes them that much more refreshing. For his part, Schrefer has done everything possible to debunk this myth. Luc shifts between despair and blazing, adolescent anger about everything he has lost in his life, setting the perfect emotional landscape to showcase chimpanzee society. Chimps are perceived to be extremely aggressive–more reading here on whether or not that may be true–and are capable of killing leopards, fellow chimps, and humans with ease. Schrefer himself, in the book’s afterward, noted this uncomfortable similarity between our species:

Very few animals live in patrilineal, male-bonded communities wherein females routinely reduce the risks of inbreeding by moving to neighboring groups to mate. And only two animal species are known to do so with a system of intense, male-initiated territorial aggression, including lethal raiding into neighboring communities in search of vulnerable enemies to attack and kill. Out of four thousand mammals and ten million or more other animal species, this suite of behaviors is known only among chimpanzees and humans. (Quoted from Demonic Males, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson.)

Schrefer writes more deeply into this connection between our species, finding hope as well. Luc’s adopted chimpanzee family, a wounded adolescent male he names Drummer and a young, affectionate girl coined Mango, are an obvious mirror for Luc and his dead baby sister. When Luc figures out how to insert Drummer into a neighboring chimpanzee troop as the dominant alpha, it’s as clearly a triumph for Luc as the chimpanzee. Both boy and chimp are loyal, brave, and resilient: they are survivors.

The book’s postscript highlights the threats facing chimpanzees right now, namely the startling fact that only two countries in the world still allow laboratory testing on chimpanzees: Gabon and the United States. While the information alone is galvanizing, it’s a shame the postscript didn’t also include some direction or encouragement to get involved in chimpanzee protection.

My only real critique is that, as in Endangered, no truly cruelty-free point of view appears in the narrative. When the professor tries to teach Luc about animal rights, both sides of the conversation seem lacking.

I thought Prof had fallen asleep, but then he spoke up. “Don’t kill a chimpanzee,” he said dozily. “Please. Don’t ever. They’re trying to survive, like you and me, like we’ve always been fighting to do.”
I’d killed plenty of things that were fighting to survive – how else did anyone eat? But I understood what Prof was saying. The chimps were mock men, with family and hopes. I guessed that could make it different.

An animal’s right to live should not be based, as some of Schrefer’s characters suggest, on their genetic proximity to humans, but I understand this is a starting point for most people and a great way to begin children and young adults on their journey to compassionate adulthood.

Between Endangered and Threatened, Schrefer is making quite a name for himself as a literary primate champion. Whether or not you love chimpanzees, this is a beautifully written, page-turning story. I was captivated by Luc’s journey from the very first sentence and would recommend it to any young adult reader. A thriller with substance and heart.

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