“Little Cambridge” or “Little Cam” is a secret laboratory hidden in the Amazon rainforest, where Mad Doctors seemingly fresh off a stint at Auschwitz are laboring to create immortal beings. So far they have made just one: almost-seventeen-year-old Pia. But a plan to make more is simmering on the back of their Bunsen Burners.
Pia is told by everyone she is “perfect,” which Pia takes to mean: without fault. What the doctors actually mean is: you can’t die, and we want that too. There is only one dissenting voice (at first) in the group: “Uncle” Antonio (Pia calls all of them either “Uncle” or “Aunt”) who always admonishes her: “Perfect is as perfect does, Pia.” Taught to be quite full of herself, it takes her a while to get the message.
On the night Pia turns seventeen, a storm creates a small hole in the electrified fence around the compound, and Pia sneaks out. In spite of her pride at being “almost” a full scientist like the others, Pia has a dearth of curiosity; she even calls the part of her that wants to see the outside “Wild Pia.” But if she had only known! For once she gets in the open, she literary runs smack into Eio, a buff almost-eighteen-year-old member of the local native tribe, the Ai’oa.
Pia and Eio fall in love in NANOseconds based entirely on each other’s looks, and in spite of the fact that Eio converses in a stilted patois we might call Pubescent Colonizer-and-Native Speak, or P-cans. Here’s a little taste of pecans (so to speak):
Eio: ‘I lied when I said you were ugly. It is not true. You… are in fact very beautiful. More beautiful than any girl I know. Because I lied to you, I must give you a gift. It is the Ai’oan way. I took the truth away from you; now I must give something back.”
Pia, meanwhile, is busy channeling Naomi Watts. Take Pia’s reaction when Eio takes her to see “The Three”: [cue up King Kong music]
The first is a man elaborately garbed in a heavy collar of parrot feathers, animal teeth, and beads. He holds a spear taller than himself with feathers tied around it. Next to him is a plump woman with intricate facial tattoos and piercings in her lips and nose. Her arms are also tattooed. She is so elegant and confident that I hardly even notice she is naked from the waist up. Beside her is a man so old he is bent double, and the skin on his face hangs in folds. … I know instinctively that these must be the leaders of the Ai’oa.”
Forrest Gump has nothing on Perfect Pia for brains!!!
Perfect Pia also has some abominably inaccurate ideas about science that are expressed without challenge. As she struggles to reconcile the desires of Wild Pia with the obedience of Perfect Pia, she thinks:
Before the hole in the fence and the boy on the other side …. I saw like a scientist. Everything was black and white. Reason and chaos. Progress and regress. … Where am I now?”
Wow, in school I hope! Ouch!
No matter: the appeal of science even as it is in Pia’s mind can’t compete with “this jungle boy.” Also, the fact is that the “scientists” are getting more overtly crazy, probably because in The Wild Jungle it is easier for people to experience folie à plusieurs.
Pia and Eio have to decide: do they brave the jungle, what with wild natives and anacondas and such, or do they brave Little Cam, with TOTALLY INSANE NAZIFIED “scientists”?
Discussion: It was a bit wince-worthy to read the patronizing ethnocentricity of this book, and even more so to think that it was possibly done in the interest of making a variation on the nice-girl-loves-bad-boy trope. (wild dark jungle native = bad boy!) The ideas in this book about the superiority of Western civilization and the immorality or amorality of science were also disturbing. Although the author makes a bit of an effort to subvert some of the more obvious Eurocentric assumptions about Westerners versus aboriginals, most of it remains unexposed, and possibly not even at a level of awareness to be subverted. (It should be noted that Eio is only half-native; he is taller and lighter than the other Ai’oans, and has blue eyes. Ipso facto, this makes him more attractive than he would otherwise be.)
There is also no reference whatsoever to what would be the quite relevant history of the centuries-long tradition of extermination of “savages” by Westerners in fulfillment of their economic and/or racist agendas (sometimes abbreviated by the phrase “Manifest Destiny”). (While it is made clear that Pia was not allowed to study history, presumably the others in Little Cam and the author suffered no such constraints.)
Evaluation: The writer is not without talent; her descriptions of the Amazon rainforest are very well done, and she did a good job with pacing the action and “thriller” aspects of the story. However, the voices of the protagonists seemed a little too young, and some of the plot assumptions were disturbing to me (see Discussion section, above.) She also could have benefited from better editing (especially for plot inconsistences).
Published by Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012