Fiona Sweeney is an American librarian with a desire to do something with her life, something that matters. Her family has always been rooted in the same New York neighborhood, but Fi isn't content to stay rooted. Instead, she decides to take a job in Kenya, helping to start a traveling library. The library takes books, by camel, to different tribes of people throughout the bush of northeastern Kenya.
The people of Mididima have differing feelings about the traveling books. Matani was sent away by his father to be educated in Nairobi, and he returned to teach the children of Mididima. However, most of the people of Mididima do not share his values or appreciation for books and learning. They believe that by learning to read the stories are lost because people do not make an effort to keep them in their brains to retell them orally. The elders know that the paper can be destroyed, but if the story is in one's brain, it cannot go away, it cannot be lost.
Many of the people of Mididima want the library to stop coming altogether. And when Taban, a.k.a. Scar Boy, does not return his library books, an action that is strictly forbidden, chaos erupts in the community.
I fell in love with The Camel Bookmobile on page one, paragraph one:
The child, wide-legged on the ground, licked dust off his fist and tried to pretend he was tasting camel milk. Nearby his father spoke to a thorny acacia while his older brother hurled rocks at a termite mound. Neither paid him any attention, but this didn't change the fact that for the child, the three of them existed as a single entity. It was as if he drank dust, beseeched a tree, and threw stones all at once. He took this oneness for granted. Separate was a concept he was too young to recognize. Nor did he know of change, or fear, or the punishment of drought. All of life still felt predictable, and forever, and safe.
Hamilton could have been more concise and simply said the boy was an infant, but she chose to remind the reader about the mind of infancy, something the reader probably doesn't remember personally but can definitely understand. And that is one of the strengths of this novel. Hamilton attempts to take the reader inside the minds of the characters, all of the characters. The point of view changes by chapter, alternating between Fi, various people of Mididima, and the Kenyan librarian. The reader is able to experience the plot from different age perspectives, different cultural perspectives, different gender perspectives. The mesh of these perspectives illustrates the mammoth complexity of cultural change.
Fi travels to Kenya with the best of intentions, but what Fi doesn't realize is that she is seeing everything through the eyes of Western culture. As Mr. Abasi, the Kenyan librarian, points out to her,
"You Americans," he said, his tone at once exasperated and indulgent. "With your unflagging belief in your ability - and your right - to change the course of another's history...You love the idea of what you think you are accomplishing in Mididima. But they have their own approach to their lives, Miss Sweeney. Don't assume it needs to change."
And likewise, the people of Mididima who are dead set against literacy see things through the eyes of their own culture. And when Nature begins to tell them that their way of life cannot be sustained much longer, their response is not to learn a new way of living but rather to move to another geographic location that will support their present way of life.
The novel is almost a tennis match, volleying back and forth between the two cultures. One of my favorite passages illustrates the differences between the clothing styles of Fi's New York City and Matani's Mididima:
In New York, fashion favored colors associated with soggy soil and clammy foods - blacks and browns and grays renamed as nutmeg, platinum, eggplant, midnight. Here the tints were as if from tubs of kindergarten finger paints, the garments like a rap poem, or a shout to their primary god, the Hundred-Legged One...
But then there are times when the cultures mesh and the similarities between fellow members of the human race emerge. The infancy example is one, as is the description of Kanika's experiences reading:
She considered what it meant to hold a book in her arms and run an index finger along the pages, letting her mind tumble with the words. How it took her away from Mididima, and how, when she closed the book and came back, she felt bigger and smarter.
The themes of this novel are powerful, and they raise questions that don't have right or wrong answers. Themes of this magnitude demand three-dimensional characters with strengths and flaws; characters who are forever and realistically altered by the events they experience. Hamilton doesn't disappoint on this front. The silent and most powerful character is Nature. Hamilton manages to brilliantly blend the setting into character in this novel. The beautiful Kenyan bush is also a remorseless killer and it plays as much a role in the community as any of the human characters do.
I can't imagine reading this book and not being more aware of how we view cultures that differ from our own. The Camel Bookmobile is a stunning multi-layered, multi-perspective novel about tolerance, about humanity, about change. I highly recommend it.