Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton

The Camel Bookmobile describes a culture clash between a do-gooder librarian from the U.S. and a nomadic African tribe. Fiona Sweeney is a librarian who wants to do something worthwhile with her life. She signs on with an organization that brings books to Kenyan villages, some of them traditionally nomadic, on camels. Mr. Abasi is a librarian who was content with his stationary library and who resents being forced along on these daily excursions into the Kenyan countryside. This novel focuses on the village of Mididima, and shows how the incursion of Westerners and their values receives mixed responses from the villagers.

Some of the villagers welcome Fi and her books, in spite of the fact the some of the books are wildly inappropriate. Others are concerned that she's disrupting their way of life in ways that will bring harm to the community. When a boy in the village refuses to return the two books he borrowed, he threatens the whole village with both the loss of the camel bookmobile, and by bringing dishonor onto the village and villagers. Although this is the central drama of the book, there are many other conflicts in the village. The village schoolteacher Matani tries to bridge the emotional gap between him and his wife, Jwahir. She has become infatuated with Abayomi, an older man in the village whose son Taban was maimed by a hyena as a toddler. Taban is friends with Kanika, a girl who has been caught up in the spell of the books delivered by the camel bookmobile, and who dreams of going off to the Distant City (Nairobi). Taban, who refuses to return the two books, threatens all of Kanika's plans, which rely on the continuing visits of the bookmobile.

I enjoyed this exploration of the clash of two very different cultures. The book is written from many different perspectives, and each character's motivations are revealed over time. It is tender, kind, and not at all judgmental about any of the perspectives, but raises a lot of questions about what we value and why. Fi's relationships with each of the characters brings out show how she has grown and benefited from her adventure, and how they have changed and learned from her as well. This book would be good for anyone who enjoys thoughtful, contemporary fiction.

Masha Hamilton. The Camel Bookmobile. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. 308 pages. ISBN 9780061173486.

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