by Elliot Schrefer
|Three Times Lucky
by Sheila Turnage
Set these two books side by side, and with the exception of their trim sizes, it would be difficult to find anything about them that is similar. But once I sat back and let the full impact of both stories settle in, I realized that they had more in common than one might imagine. For one, they both feature orphans.
One is the story of an orphaned girl, raised on the bayou by a quirky cast of townsfolk. The other is the story of a displaced girl raised in the jungle by a cast of orphaned bonobos. (Okay, I promise, that’s the end of my cleverness).
Both stories have strong narrative voices, told in the first person past tense. Mo LoBeau, of Tupelo Landing, is the natural sister of so many well-loved middle grade heroes. One can’t help but read her and conjure up Opal, Frankie and Turtle. She shares their attributes as well: pluck, smarts, and gumption. It’s easy to get on her side from the very opening pages, and the reader is literally lifted through the story by the buoyancy of the language. This book was written in my native tongue, and it made my ears happy to hear it.
Sophie’s voice, in Endangered, is not nearly so dear. Hers is older, and more melancholy. But it is just as distinct. In it, are the echoes of colonial Congo, with its odd mixture of French, Lingala, English, and yes, even the grunts and “murps” of her apes. However, the author also used Sophie’s voice to cast her as an outsider. We’re aware, throughout the tale, that Sophie is caught between worlds, desperate to claim at least one as her own, but uncertain about where she fits. This uncertainty is apparent in every move she makes, with the exception of her almost psychotic attachment to Otto, the orphaned bonobo.
As well, both stories feature settings that play integral roles. Turnage’s Tupelo Landing is almost as out of time and place as Schrefer’s Congo. However, the first tends to wrap its citizens in a protective nest. Even when one of them is murdered, the place itself provides solace. Mo, despite her orphan status, is for all intents and purposes everyone’s child and sister. And the community provides a safe haven for her even in the midst of turmoil and bad weather. Throughout the story, there is never any question about where home is, even though there might be questions about its residents.
On the other hand, the Congo is never to be trusted. For a huge portion of the book, Sophie is no one’s child or sister, more a member of the bonobo herd than her own kind. While the creek in Tupelo Landing surely has poisonous snakes, nothing can compare to the venomous crew of the Congo, especially the armed kata-kata, men and boys with rifles and machetes. As Sophie treks through the jungle, across abandoned manioc fields, along the marshes of the river, and through the abandoned villages of her war torn country, she must largely avoid the roads and trails that might expose her and the orphaned Otto. Schrefer does a fine job of grounding the reader. Throughout the story, we are constantly aware of Sophie’s surroundings, we know exactly where she is. He has made her a fully sentient being, one whose senses become even more acute as she ventures forth.
In fact, the question of trust looms large in both stories. Who is real and who is not? In Mo’s case, the two people most responsible for her are constantly disappearing for up to three days at a time. She never knows when one will arrive and the other depart. Mo is lucky for sure in that she has the rest of the townsfolk to rely upon. And they don’t let her down, especially her best friend, Dale.
Trust is a harder problem for Sophie. In her world, nothing is as it seems. The three humans whom she actually interacts with along her journey are practically magical: the teacher in the boarding school; Wello, the boatman; and even Bouain, the child soldier who wears the fingertips of his victims on a cord around his neck. In fact, by the time she encounters Bouain, she actually turns to magic to escape, the magic being her connection to Otto. One could argue that that wasn’t magic. I say it depends upon your definition of magic.
Both of these stories are page-turners. Both are full of surprises. And both have endings that satisfy. (Caveat: I’m not a huge fan of the “years later” kind of ending that Schrefer used here—a post-ending-ending–but in this case, it wasn’t a deal breaker).
So, what to do? How to decide? When I read the lines out loud in Mo’s story, my heart sang. I loved the cadences, the idiomatic speech, the lyricism embedded throughout this story. It was like sitting at dinner with my great aunts. I found myself at turns laughing, and at turns puzzled. Where was the author taking me? I had that question more often than not. And just when I thought I had it all figured out, Turnage threw another wrench into the plot and made me reconsider. The book was a flat-out joy. I know that young readers are going to soak this one right up.
On the surface, it seems that Endangered is for an older crowd, and can thus be more expansive in its breadth, but I also think there is going to be a lot of overlap with the readers for these two books. After all, Lucky doesn’t shy away from hard issues. There is, along the banks of the bayou a smattering of child and spousal abuse, abandonment, alcoholism, murder, robbery, memory loss, police corruption, underage drinking, sexual innuendo.
In many ways, both books are a celebration of the impressive tenacity of children. Mo and Sophie make us think of the human spirit as a treasure.
But at the end of the day, it’s Sophie who does this best. At least for this reader. In her overwhelming devotion to Otto, we see the enduring possible, even in the face of overwhelming cruelty. Likewise, I think it makes us uncomfortable to consider that a human’s love for an animal can be so intense and personal that she would risk her life, and possibly the lives of others, in order to save it. Schrefer does not shy away from that question, either. Instead, he puts it on the page in a bold way, and in so doing, we are asked to reach down deep and look at humanity at large. It’s how we treat the least of us, I think, that is at the core of this story. My experience tells me that children have no problem understanding this.
In the face of so much desperation, Sophie makes her own painful and misbegotten “Sophie’s choices.” But we can buy them because she is, after all, still a child, a girl who in many ways has also been, despite her parents’ obvious love for her, nonetheless abandoned. Like Otto’s constant need for body-to-body contact, Sophie’s primary dream is not for Otto; it’s to be held by her own absent mother. And by extension, she’s asking the world itself to hold her beloved Congo in its arms, so that at long last it too can become more fully human/humane.
Here’s the thing. It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a while, I enter a book on page one, and when I exit that book, I feel like I’ve come to see something about the world that I didn’t know, or I didn’t think I knew. It feels like I’ve trued something that needed truing. Endangered was one of those books.
— Kathi Appelt
And the Winner of this match is……
My pick for this round was THREE TIMES LUCKY, and when I saw that Kathi was assigned to judge this match, it brought back memories of Tamora Pierce judging GRACELING, and I thought THREE TIMES LUCKY would walk all over ENDANGERED. Kathi makes these books sound very evenly matched, but ultimately Sophie had the edge over Mo in celebrating the tenacity of children. I can’t help but wonder if some of that is because Mo’s story is unresolved, probably to be continued in a series of books. We can only hope so. I always figured that ENDANGERED would be a nice first round bye for either CODE NAME VERITY or THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, but thanks to a quirk in the bracketing, it survives to the next round where . . . it will be a second round bye for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS?
— Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Alas, another one of those dreadful pairings! At this rate, none of the younger books will get to the finals – where I do not believe they would be slaughtered, because they have tenacity and some hidden strength, like Sophie and Mo.
But Ms. Appelt makes excellent insights about the competitors, and gives Mo her due. I particularly like how she talks of both books as being “magical;” while primarily used to describe Endangered, the word fits Three Times Lucky just as well. The climax, with storms and hidden secrets, seems nearly otherworldly, as does Colonel and Mo’s arrival in Tupelo Landing, not to mention the recurring luck in the story. Our main character, in fact, seems to be the only character commonplace in this type of children’s adventure. From Miss Lana and Dale, to Detective Joe Starr and Lavender, the populace of the book is uniformly strange. In the end, all the “magic” is revealed.
You see, these children’s books can have quite a lot of depth! (And on that note of magic, there are plenty of other books in this battle that evoke a dreamy, imaginary feel – Splendors and Glooms, Starry River of the Sky. I think all good books have something of that aura, in fact.)
Endangered also goes deep into the human condition, particularly a queer relationship with animals. In this case, however, the magic is not revealed, not solved in the least. Schrefer merely asks for humans to do what we can, and love the world and the beings in it, using Sophie and Otto as an example. But the human spirit is subjective, and I’m not sure that Endangered expresses it better than Three Times Lucky – for me, a tossup, as one must also take into account Ms. Appelt’s observation that Schrefer brings us to a completely new, and true, world.
— Kid Commentator RGN