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The Camel Bookmobile: A Novelby Masha Hamilton
Synopses & Reviews
When Fiona Sweeney tells her family she wants to do something that matters, they do not expect her to go to Africa to help start a traveling library. But that is where Fiona chooses to make her mark: in the arid bush of northeastern Kenya, among tiny, far-flung communities, nearly unknown and lacking roads and schools, where people live daily with drought, hunger, and disease.
In The Camel Bookmobile, Fi travels to settlements where people have never held a book in their hands. Her goal is to help bring Dr. Seuss, Homer, Tom Sawyer, and Hemingway to a largely illiterate and semi-nomadic populace. However, because the donated books are limited in number and the settlements are many, the library initiates a tough fine: if anyone fails to return a book, the bookmobile will stop coming.
Though her motives are good, Fi doesn't understand the people she seeks to help. Encumbered by her Western values, she finds herself in the midst of several struggles within the community of Mididima. There the bookmobile's presence sparks a feud between those who favor modernization and those who fear the loss of the traditional way of life in the African bush. The feud heightens when one young man — "Scar Boy" — doesn't return his books. As promised, the library stops all visits, but Fi goes to the settlement alone, determined to recover what has been lost.
Evocative, seamless, and haunting, The Camel Bookmobile is a powerful saga that challenges our fears of the unknown. It is a story that captures the riddles and calamities that often occur when two cultures collide. It follows an American librarian who travels to Africa to give meaning to her life, and ultimately loses a piece of her heart. In the end, this compelling novel shows how one life can change many, in spite of dangerous and seemingly immutable obstacles.
"Hamilton's captivating third novel (after 2004's The Distance Between Us) follows Fiona Sweeney, a 36-year-old librarian, from New York to Garissa, Kenya, on her sincere but naïve quest to make a difference in the world. Fi enlists to run the titular mobile library overseen by Mr. Abasi, and in her travels through the bush, the small village of Mididima becomes her favorite stop. There, Matani, the village teacher; Kanika, an independent, vivacious young woman; and Kanika's grandmother Neema are the most avid proponents of the library and the knowledge it brings to the community. Not everyone shares such esteem for the project, however. Taban, known as Scar Boy; Jwahir, Matani's wife; and most of the town elders think these books threaten the tradition and security of Mididima. When two books go missing, tensions arise between those who welcome all that the books represent and those who prefer the time-honored oral traditions of the tribe. Kanika, Taban and Matani become more vibrant than Fi, who never outgrows the cookie-cutter mold of a woman needing excitement and fulfillment, but Hamilton weaves memorable characters and elemental emotions in artful prose with the lofty theme of Western-imposed 'education' versus a village's perceived perils of exposure to the developed world." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Masha Hamilton has been a journalist in Moscow and the Middle East and is the author of two previous books. In an Internet interview she seems to be responsible, sensible, serious in every way. I should also say that some pre-publication reviews of her first novel, 'The Camel Bookmobile,' have been both favorable and respectful and that there really is a camel bookmobile operating out of Garissa,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a town in Kenya — a caravan carrying donated volumes to tribes so remote that some of them have never seen a book. Also, in her photograph, Hamilton looks like the nicest person in the world. But I read 'The Camel Bookmobile' with grinding embarrassment. Why didn't somebody save the author from this? For all her previous experiences with foreign cultures, how could she have managed to appear to be so — for lack of a better phrase — culture-bound? Here is the story. Fiona Sweeney, a spunky, 'whimsical' 36-year-old librarian, gets sick to death of her job and her boyfriend in New York City and decides to go to Kenya to be part of the Camel Bookmobile project. She will be working for an African librarian, Mr. Abasi, who likes neither books nor people and took this job because it keeps him indoors and allows him to do little work. He scorns the remote villages that he and Fiona are supposed to be serving, and hates to ride on a camel. Already there is an implicit and shiveringly creepy assumption that Fiona, an American woman, knows how to do this job far better than the African allegedly in charge. One of the tribes they visit includes three significant families: Neema, a wise grandma and her teenage grandchild, Kanika; Matani, who has done some studying in Nairobi, and his vain, self-serving wife, Jwahir; and Abayomi the drum maker, a widower who lives with his two sons, Badru, who's a handful, and Scar Boy, who was hideously mauled as a child by a hyena. Conveniently for the Bookmobile, Grandma Neema can read (she read the Bible until she got sick of it), and so can Matani. He has tried to teach the tribal children their letters but has no pencils, no paper, and gets little respect for his efforts. On the romantic front, Jwahir, Matani's wife, has denied him sex for months, aborted his child because she didn't want to spoil her figure, and although it's stated repeatedly that adultery means execution for a woman if she's caught, has been making brazen advances to Abayomi. So, in comes the Camel Bookmobile. It has books in Swahili, but they don't figure in the narrative. The ones that do are mostly in English: 'The Cat in the Hat,' 'Project for Winter,' 'The Pearl' and something called 'Baby's First Five Years.' 'Tell them,' Fiona says to Mr. Abasi, as she tries in vain to urge that volume on a couple of impassive indigenous matrons, 'this is loaded with simple games for a child's early development.' Frankly, I'm baffled by the tone here. I just don't know what the author is getting at. Fiona behaves in every way like the proverbial ugly American. She barges into huts where only men are living, she goes out walking alone with Matani and (literally) turns cartwheels for him, she teaches the kids to sing 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,' all in the bland assumption that Western culture, even its most debased forms, simply must be superior. When a couple of books go missing, she returns alone to the village to find the culprit (much of the plot turns on these missing books) and moves right in with Neema and Kanika, never considering that another mouth to feed in a poverty-stricken tribe might be an imposition. She gets her hair braided in the African way and, well, you know what's coming. This is the Tribe That Acts According to the Author's Wishes. Consider 'female circumcision,' for example. 'They held me down and hewed away at my private flesh with a broad-bladed knife,' Neema tells Kanika, but Kanika, although she's a nubile teenager ready for marriage, never gets around to having it done. And remember those strict rules about fooling around? When Abayomi tells Matani that his wife actually 'loves' him, the drum maker, does Matani complain to the elders and invoke the law? No, he throws up a couple of times and in a few pages takes Fiona Sweeney to a hut outside the village where they do something called 'drinking honeyed rain.' Meanwhile, Matani's wife, who despite her own circumcision entertains lustful thoughts, complains about recipes in the library books when she can't even read the title of 'The Cat in the Hat' correctly. And why, in a tribe where children mean everything, would she choose to (a) remain childless to keep her figure, and (b) make a move that would turn her into the stepmother of the abominably deformed Scar Boy? This is a novel where the word 'exotic' occurs at least eight times; where people think thoughts like 'Where in the name of a camel's ass had that feisty spirit gone?' But readers can talk about that in discussion groups, along with what 'drinking honeyed rain' out in the bush might actually be like. Embarrassing. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[A] lush celebration of the productive — and destructive — power of the written word....Hamilton has created a poignant, ennobling, and buoyant tale of risks and rewards, surrender and sacrifice." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Hamilton presents a rare and balanced perspective on issues surrounding cultural intrusion and the very meaning and necessity of literacy, using rich and evocative prose that skillfully exposes the stark realities of poverty and charity in today's Africa. Highly recommended." Library Journal
In The Camel Bookmobile, Masha Hamilton tells the story of a restless American librarian searching for more meaning in her life who travels to Africa to help start a library carrying books to remote settlements on the backs of camels. The bookmobile divides the semi-nomadic people it intends to serve: Scar Boy, the village teacher Matani, and others embrace it, seeing it as a much-needed taste of the outside world, while Matani’s wife, her father and others fiercely oppose it, viewing it — and the librarian herself — as a dangerous and corrupting force. The settlement disintegrates under these pressures, while the librarian learns that cultural chasms can confound the best of intentions and doom an unexpected love.
Reminiscent of Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Camel Bookmobile is a captivating novel about a young American woman who leaves her everyday life behind, to bring the joy of reading to a small African village.
Fiona Sweeney wants to do something that matters, and she chooses to make her mark in the arid bush of northeastern Kenya. By helping to start a traveling library, she hopes to bring the words of Homer, Hemingway, and Dr. Seuss to far-flung tiny communities where people live daily with drought, hunger, and disease. Her intentions are honorable, and her rules are firm: due to the limited number of donated books, if any one of them is not returned, the bookmobile will not return.
But, encumbered by her Western values, Fi does not understand the people she seeks to help. And in the impoverished small community of Mididima, she finds herself caught in the middle of a volatile local struggle when the bookmobile's presence sparks a dangerous feud between the proponents of modernization and those who fear the loss of traditional ways.
About the Author
Masha Hamilton is the author of two previous books, The Distance Between Us and Staircase of a Thousand Steps. As a journalist she has worked for the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, NBC-Mutual Radio, and several other news organizations around the globe. She has spent extensive time in Russia, Africa, Afghanistan, and the Middle East reporting, researching, and writing, including a trip to Kenya to accompany the actual camel bookmobile on some of its runs. A graduate of Brown University, she lives with her family in New York City.
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