by Elliot Schrefer
|The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
I opened Endangered by Eliot Schrefer, took one look at the photo of the baby bonobo, and significantly increased in understanding for the mother of the Ikea monkey. I thought, “Gimme that baby! I wannit!”
So hello good book design: I was hooked before page one.
Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Endangered is about a girl, Sophie, who rescues an infant bonobo, Otto, and brings him home to the sanctuary her Congolese mother has instituted for the rehabilitation of bonobos who have been abducted from the wild by bushmeat traders. The reader falls in love with Otto just as Sophie does, and from then on the stakes are high. Sophie goes to great lengths, at the risk of her own safety and life, to keep Otto safe, and the reader sticks with her to the very end to ensure that the little guy makes it.
You like adventure stories? Animal stories? War/dystopian stories? This book has it all. Sophie survives in the sanctuary with the bonobos for several weeks until she is no longer safe there. She begins a journey through the Congo to find her mother at the site where the bonobos are released into the wild. There are a lot of guns in the book. There are lots of bugs in this book. Deliciously horrible. You are never allowed to stop worrying about Otto. You are never allowed to stop loving him. You are never allowed to put the book down.
If you educate me while I am turning the pages as fast as ever I can, I am a most happy reader. I was fascinated by everything I learned about the Congo. How can I practically be elderly and not know that the principle language of the nation is French? That the country has about the same landmass as Western Europe? That many complex conditions contribute to the Congo’s political corruption and upheaval, including, and possibly most significantly, a lack of economic resources. The writer performs the most wonderful sleight of hand by making us hate the violence of political turbulence, and at the same time making us love the people. How did he do that? Magic, that’s how.
I loved this line from the question and answer pages at the back of the book: “What I love most about the peaceful, matriarchal bonobos is that they prove war and conflict aren’t inevitable.” Given plentiful resources, bonobos live peaceably with one another, Schrefer explains. We conclude that bonobos have something to teach us, that given more plentiful resources, human beings could also live more peaceably with one another. Good job, Mr. Schrefer. Come right out and say it. Thank you.
The book has a happy ending, too. Was it too happy? Not for me. I don’t just believe in happy endings, I insist upon them. If Otto hadn’t grown up to be a handsome bonobo with a nice little wife and baby, it couldn’t have been borne.
So. Now I will compare this book to The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Because they told me I must.
The Fault in Our Stars is set in ordinary North American. It is about two ordinary teenagers, Hazel and Augustus, who are diagnosed with cancer. Except, well, they aren’t terribly ordinary. They are bright and funny and devastatingly honest as they deal with their illness and as they fall in love. They do travel together to Amsterdam to meet up with the fictional author Peter van Houten who writes the fictional fiction novel An Imperial Affliction. In Amsterdam they kiss. Except this kiss is not “only” a kiss. It is a kiss in the hiding place of Anne Frank and, please, could there be a better place to kiss. Somehow John Green writes the most romantic romance-story-that-is-not-a-romance-story ever.
This book also educated me. I learned, for example, how stupid some of the platitudes must sound to kids who are living with cancer. I learned the qualities of a good nurse: doesn’t pun on your disability, gets blood on the first try, and doesn’t use a condescending voice. I learned that when you are young and suddenly facing your early demise, you are thrust somewhat out of the ideological constructs of our everyday existence. You ask big questions: What the heck is this all about, anyway? Why me and not someone else? Why not me? The book also makes the reader ask small questions. I have been eating an egg almost every day for breakfast for half a century. Then I read this: “It’s embarrassing that we all just walk through life blindly accepting that scrambled eggs are fundamentally associated with mornings.” I determined to eat pizza for breakfast the next day, and eggs for supper. That’s the sort of thing a book should do. It should make you eat different. Be different. And I was. When I finished this book I was different.
The author says in the front pages, “Neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.” And that is the foundational assumption behind my evaluation. Because this story does matter. It matters to anyone who wonders how kids deal with suffering and still find joy in their lives. It matters to anyone who believes that love is really the only thing that survives us. It matters to anyone who can’t stand it that sometimes bad stuff happens to the young and the innocent.
The voice sounded adult to me at first – I don’t know any teenagers who talk like Hazel. But after a while I didn’t mind. Surely cancer makes you grow up faster, makes you grow a language to fit the life you weren’t supposed to have but which you now do. And if you make me laugh, you can take me anywhere. This book made me laugh. And cry. And anytime a book does that, baby, I’m yours. I felt these kids.
In contrast, I found it hard to feel Sophie. Otto, yes, but Sophie often felt far away, though she is the viewpoint character. Perhaps it was that Schrefer named emotions rather that showing them. “It made me angry, but I couldn’t find the words to tell her.” “I missed them so much at that moment and was struck through with concern for their well-being.” Of course, naming emotions is one technique in a writer’s toolbox, but it was used, perhaps, a little too exclusively. When her voice was “full of tears,” or her sorrow “swelled” in her, I felt like there was no room for me, the reader, to experience those emotions in a visceral way.
Well, of course I’m being picky. But I guess I had to find something. The fault in the stars of Eliot Schrefer is that his book came up against The Fault in Our Stars. I wouldn’t want my book to come up against a John Green book in a dark alley.
So the winner is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I like my choice. I hope you do, too.
– Martine Leavitt
And the Winner of this match is……
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS
Of all the second round battles, this one is the most mismatched, and it’s no surprise that THE FAULT IN OUR STARS vanquishes the last serious underdog in this competition. Despite being a National Book Award finalist, ENDANGERED just never picked up any steam. I’m surprised that it beat out THREE TIMES LUCKY to advance to this point. While I wholeheartedly agree with Martine’s choice, I’m going to bicker about the details. I didn’t have a problem with the characterization of Sophie, and I think show-not-tell is the most overused and misunderstood piece of writing advice. (Writers, discuss in the comments.) John Green novels always employ a heady, intoxicating mix of sparkling wit and intellectual food for thought, but more than any of his previous books, this one elicits tender, sad emotions; it’s a real tearjerker. Is it the best book he’s ever written? (Readers, discuss in the comments.)
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
With the battle now halfway through its second round, the competition is getting fiercer and the pairings harder to weigh. Both books in this round happen to be of my favorites; two books that I simply could not put down. Endangered was a novel that was both incredibly compelling and phenomenally written. The main character, Sophie, was fierce, courageous, and shrewd, containing all of the ingredients of a loveable protagonist. It truly portrayed the difficulties that humans have with the world around us. From the very minute that I picked up The Fault in Our Stars, it immediately made me feel all different kinds of emotions: from making me laugh out loud, to even shedding a few tears. I never thought that I could feel so strongly for people who did not exist. Above all other things, the story is honest, and is relatable to everyone who is trying to find their place in this world, not only to those with terminal illnesses. John Green weaves an intricate, star crossed love story that made me look at my own life differently, and although I also enjoyed Endangered, my heart will forever lie with Augustus and Hazel.
– Kid Commentator GI