I am slow to the Sara Gruen party, but catching up quickly. I only read her 2007 bestseller, Water for Elephants late last year, and enjoyed it very much. This 2010 book was also available from the library at the same time, so I snagged it as well. I’m glad I did. As with Water for Elephants, Gruen shows an instinctive empathy for the animals that feature prominently in her stories. In this case, it’s a shrewdness of apes who live in a Midwestern university’s language laboratory. When the lab is bombed, the university panics and sells the bonobos to an anonymous buyer who does not have the apes’ best interests at heart. Isabel (a linguist who worked closely with the bonobos) is determined to rescue them.
The bonobos’ distinct personalities shine throughout the book, and Gruen includes several scenes from their point of view, which makes each of them as much a character as any of the two-legged creatures in the book. Gruen’s human characters are a bit more one-dimensional, in particular a cutthroat newspaper reporter, but not enough to keep the reader from rooting wholeheartedly for Isabel to be reunited with the apes she considers the closest thing to family she has ever had. Particularly sharp is Gruen’s sendup of reality television shows like Big Brother. It’s impossible not to contrast the ways the bonobos confound producers’ attempts to introduce conflict into their group for the sake of ratings with the ways actual humans fall willingly into the same trap again and again.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, Gruen talks about her own experiences meeting and talking with bonobos at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines. Many of the vignettes in the book are directly drawn from her and other people’s experiences there, and it lends a distinct air of authenticity to the book. Living in Iowa just 90 minutes from Des Moines, I was already aware of the Trust and the work they do there. If you’ll pardon a blatant plug in a book review, the Trust was founded in 2002 and has been funded since largely by one man, Ted Townsend, who pledged to do so for 10 years. Ten years later, the need to find new funding sources is immediate, and the Great Ape Trust is actively seeking donations to continue their work studying and documenting the lives and abilities of these truly amazing animals. If you’d like to help, please consider making a donation.