Monday, February 23, 2009

The Camel Bookmobile - Masha Hamilton

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.


Jennifer February 23, 2009 at 9:30 PM  

I wonder if I was just in the wrong frame of mind when I read this novel. I thought it was okay, but mostly boring. I touched upon that in my review. I'm glad that you liked it, though. The reason I picked this book up in the first place was that I loved the idea of sharing books with people in Africa. To bring awareness to that is a good thing.

Jennifer @ Literate Housewife

Corey Wilde February 23, 2009 at 10:14 PM  

Sounds like a wonderful book. And yes, Americans are so used to thinking of our culture as somehow superior and more advanced, that we don't easily see that 'it ain't necessarily so.'

Jen February 24, 2009 at 6:04 AM  

Hi Jennifer, isn't it wonderful that there are so many books so that what one person finds boring another finds intriguing. I was reading an article yesterday about why people become bored and it all has to do with your own experiences. We all bring something different to the books we read and that's what determines whether they are "good" or "bad" in our eyes. Of course, some end up being one way or the other in MANY people's eyes, but that's o.k., too! LOL So glad you stopped by, see ya on Twitter!

Corey, I couldn't help but think of THINGS FALL APART while I was reading this book. And I thought sometimes Americans just need something they can relate to: if one person becomes a teacher and another becomes a doctor, they are two different ways of life. One may be more financially secure than the other, but that doesn't make one more "right" than the other. There are pros and cons to each. The same with these culture clashes. One isn't more right than other simply because it's easier. I really enjoyed this book.

Joe Barone February 24, 2009 at 8:32 AM  

I argued with myself about whether to put this comment, but I decided to. I read mostly mystery stories, but this sounds like a book my wife would enjoy. I'll suggest it to her.

As a girl, my wife was raised in a poor family. The in her rural setting, the bookmobile was a real saving grace to her.

Jen February 24, 2009 at 8:43 AM  

Joe, the young girl Kanika is also very positively affected by the book mobile in this particular story. I think the overall message of the book is that change happens slowly and through generations. No one event or cause is going to magically alter something that has existed for generations.

What I appreciated the most about this book is that it looks at all the different perspectives and doesn't necessarily force one or the other on you as the "right" perspective, just a different perspective. It's easier for me as a Westerner to understand Fi's perspective, naturally. But to be intolerant to the other perspectives is wrong.

If your wife reads the book, I'd love to hear how she likes it. Thanks for stopping by - glad you decided to comment :)

Corey Wilde February 24, 2009 at 11:14 AM  

Wow, I hadn't thought about 'Things Fall Apart' in many years. Great book.

Kay February 24, 2009 at 1:00 PM  

Jen, you did a wonderful job on this review. I have had this book in my sights for a while and I might even have a copy around here somewhere. Thanks so much for sharing!

Corey Wilde February 24, 2009 at 5:39 PM  

Jen, I need to ask for an off-topic favor. Joe Barone said he is unable to post comments to my blog. I can't find anything wrong. Would you mind very much posting a 'testing 123' comment and if it doesn't work, please let me know here. Thanks!

Jen February 24, 2009 at 6:50 PM  

Corey, I'm having problems, too. When I go to post my comment a word verification never comes's just sitting on "loading." Let me know if there's anything else I can do to help ya out...

Corey Wilde February 24, 2009 at 7:19 PM  

Thanks, Jen. Turns out it's not just me, some others on blogspot are having the same problem. Blogger suggested turning off the word verification and I've done that so we'll see how it goes. Thanks again.

Masha February 25, 2009 at 8:08 AM  

Hi Jen, thanks so much for this review; in case you think the authors never read the blogs, here's one who did--a friend sent me a link to yours and I loved it. You got a lot of what I hoped for in Camel, and I'm grateful! warmly, Masha

Jen February 25, 2009 at 8:18 AM  

Masha, I'm so thrilled that you stopped by. Thank you! Thank you also for this wonderful look at the African book mobile. It has added a trememdous amount to my reading experience. Best!

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