270 p. Scholastic Press, October, 2012. 9780545165761. (Purchased)
Fourteen-year-old Sophie spent the first eight years of her life in Congo before moving to Miami with her American father after her parents' divorce. Her mother chose her work with the bonobos and the sanctuary she established over Sophie and her father. It is with mixed feelings that she's returning for her summer visit. During the car ride from Kinshasa to the sanctuary, Sophie spots a man with a crippled foot standing in traffic attempting to sell an infant bonobo. Sophie grew up among the bonobos and knows that the infant was in great danger of dying. She also knows that her mother would forbid her from buying the ape from the poacher but there is no time to inform the authorities. Sophie knows both the poacher and bonobo would disappear into the crowds before anyone arrived. So she makes a deal and brings the bonobo infant to her mother's sanctuary. She is far from pleased and assigns Sophie 24/7 care of "Otto."
Although the work was hard, Otto thrives under Sophie's care. The reader learns a lot about Congo, bonobos and the plight of both. Sophie is a bit ambivalent about her mother. While she admires the work that she has done establishing and maintaining the sanctuary, she feels that her mom cares more for the bonobos than her own daughter. As the end of Sophie's visit approaches, her mom needs to leave the sanctuary to release some bonobos into the wild. Shortly after her mother's departure, the president is assassinated and the government is overturned. Rebels are looting and killing. Sophie's father arranges for her to be airlifted out with the UN, but she can't bring herself to leave Otto when the van arrives to pick her up. When the rebels find the sanctuary, they shoot all the adults but Sophie and Otto escape, first into the bonobo enclosure, and later into the jungle.
Buckle your seatbelt folks. This one's a nail-biter and, unlike the survival story featuring a young girl that I read a week or so ago, totally believable. When I first heard about the book and read the premise, I recall being a bit skeptical. Then it was announced as a National Book Award Finalist, so I bought it. I had hoped to read all the finalists before the award was announced, = fail. I'm glad I finally got to it. I was totally sucked in on page one. I liked Sophie's voice even though she sounded older than fourteen (later we learn she narrates the story as an adult). I loved the strong sense of setting and enjoyed the long descriptions of bonobo care and feeding as well as how they behave as a society. Otto was utterly adorable and his relationship with Sophie was incredible.
I do wonder a bit about the audience. It's an intense read and while the violence is not graphic, there's plenty of violence as well as the threat of sexual assault. Just as upsetting is the unrelenting poverty and desperate condition of the people of Congo. There are also two totally heartbreaking scenes at a makeshift AIDS hospital. There will be tears during this read. While I find the cover beautiful, it's a bit sinister despite that adorable bonobo peeking out. I have a cadre of fifth grade girls who just love animal books. They'll need to wait for this one. It's probably best for grades 7 & up.
Click here to watch the author speak about the book.