The New York Times
The Camel Bookmobile: A Novelby Masha Hamilton
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
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.
The New York Times
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. (Apr.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
New York City librarian Fiona Sweeney has taken an unusual assignment in Kenyaâ€”running a bookmobile service powered by camel and serving isolated, seminomadic villages like Mididima, where teenaged library customer Kanika lives with her grandmother, Neema. Taban, a young man severely scarred as a toddler by a hyena, is shunned by most of the community, but he and Kanika share a friendship and a sweet anticipation of Sweeney's every visit. Matani, Mididima's schoolmaster, is a champion of the service, but even he can't do anything when several missing books threaten the village's reputation and set off a chain of events that expose misguided motives, hidden agendas, illicit romance, and tragedy. This third novel from international journalist Hamilton (e.g., The Distance Between Us, an LJBest Book) 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 for any fiction collection. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/06; the story was suggested by the Camel Mobile Library Service actually provided by Kenya's national library.â€”Ed.]
Jenn B. Stidham
Fiona, a New York librarian filled with a sense of adventure and a desire to do good, heads to Kenya to run the camel bookmobile. She has long romanticized Africa, and she arrives determined but naive. Her most remote stop is Mididima, a seminomadic farming village with a makeshift school, led by Matani, who has studied in Nairobi but returned to educate his fellow villagers. Young Kanika, who wants to leave and study as well; the reclusive Scar Boy; and their families are among Fiona's patrons. When Scar Boy doesn't return the books he's borrowed, the overly rigid local librarian threatens to end the Mididima stop. Fiona, Matani, and Kanika each have stake in keeping the bookmobile coming, so they all try to get the boy to return them. However, he has his own compelling reason to keep them. All of the characters take a turn at narrating chapters, allowing readers to understand their place in the story more fully. Ultimately, each one is changed by the bookmobile, but not in ways that they (or we) might expect. Teens can enjoy not only the multicultural aspect of this novel but also the quiet drama and plot twists that impart the differences and similarities among the characters.
Jamie WatsonCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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The Camel Bookmobile
By Masha Hamilton
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2007 Masha Hamilton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDecember 2002-Brooklyn, New York
Fiona Sweeney shoved a pair of rolled-up jeans into the corner of her purple duffel bag. Outside her bedroom window, a siren's wail sliced through the white noise of a wet snowfall. Those eerie man-made moans were part of New York City's wallpaper, a signal of trouble commonplace enough to pass unnoticed. But Fi registered this one, maybe because she knew she wouldn't be hearing sirens for a while.
She turned her attention back to her bag, which still had space. What else should she take? Lifting a framed snapshot, she examined her mother as a young woman, wading into a stream, wearing rubber boots and carrying a fishing pole. Fi cherished the photograph; in real life, she'd never known her mother to be that carefree. The mother Fi had known wouldn't want to go to Africa. In fact, she wouldn't want Fi to go. Fi put the picture facedown and scanned the room, her attention drawn to a worn volume of Irish poetry by her bedside. She tucked it in.
"How about the netting?" Chris called from the living room where he sat with Devi.
"Already in," Fi answered.
"And repellent?" asked Devi.
"Yes, yes." Fi waved her hand as though shooing away a gnat-a gesture that Chris and Devi couldn't see from theother room. "Should have kept my mouth shut," she murmured.
Early on in her research about Kenya, she'd discovered that the country's annual death toll from malaria was in the tens of thousands. She had pills; she had repellents; logically, she knew she'd be fine. Still, a figure that high jolted her. She became slightly obsessed and-here's the rub-discussed it with Chris and Devi. Mbu-mosquito-had been the first Swahili word she'd learned. Sometimes the insects even dive-bombed into her nightmares. Eventually, mosquitoes became a metaphor for everything she feared about this trip: all the stories she'd read about a violent and chaotic continent, plus the jitters that come with the unknown.
And what wasn't unknown? All she knew for sure, in fact, was why she was going. Fi's mom had never been a big talker, but she'd been a hero, raising four kids alone. Now it was Fi's turn to do something worthwhile.
"Fi." Chris, at the door of the bedroom, waved in the air the paper on which he'd written a list of all the items he thought she should bring and might forget. Money belt. Hat. Granola bars. "Have you been using this?" he asked half-mockingly in the tone of a teacher.
"I hate lists," Fi said.
He studied her a second. "OK," he said. "Then, what do you say, take a break?"
"Yeah, c'mon, Fi. We don't want to down all your wine by ourselves," Devi called from the living room, where an Enya CD played low.
Pulling back her dark, frizzy hair and securing it with a clip, Fi moved to the living room and plopped onto the floor across from Devi, who sprawled in a long skirt on the couch. Chris poured Fi a glass of cabernet and sat in the chair nearest her. If they reached out, the three of them could hold hands. Fi felt connected to them in many ways, but at the same time, she was already partly in another place and period. A soft light fell in from the window, dousing the room in a flattering glow and intensifying the sensation that everything around her was diaphanous, and that she herself was half here and half not.
"You know, there's lots of illiteracy in this country," Devi said after a moment.
"That's why I've been volunteering after work," Fi said. "But there, it's different. They've never been exposed to libraries. Some have never held a book in their hands."
"Not to mention that it's more dangerous, which somehow makes it appealing to Fi," Chris said to Devi, shaking his head. "Nai-robbery."
Though he spoke lightly, his words echoed those of Fi's brother and two sisters-especially her brother. She was ready with a retort. "I'll mainly be in Garissa, not Nairobi," she said. "It's no more dangerous there than New York City. Anyway, I want to take some risks-different risks. Break out of my rut. Do something meaningful." Then she made her tone playful. "The idealistic Irish. What can you do?"
"Sometimes idealism imposes," Chris said. "What if all they want is food and medicine?"
"You know what I think. Books are their future. A link to the modern world." Fi grinned. "Besides, we want Huckleberry Finn to arrive before Sex in the City reruns, don't we?"
Devi reached out to squeeze Fi's shoulder. "Just be home by March."
Home. Fi glanced around, trying to consciously take in her surroundings. She'd considered subletting, which would have been the most economical decision, but she'd gotten busy and let it slide. Now she noticed that Chris had stacked her magazines neatly and stored away the candles so they wouldn't collect dust. After she left for Kenya, Chris had told her, he'd come back to wash any glasses or plates she'd left out, make sure the post office was holding her mail, and take her plants back to his apartment. He'd thought of that, not her. A nice gesture, she kept reminding herself. Still. She gave Chris a wicked grin as she reached out to mess up the magazines on the coffee table. It felt satisfying, even though she knew he would just restack them later.
Chris was deep into what his colleagues called "groundbreaking" research on the human brain-specifically the hippocampus-at NYU Medical Center. He wanted a shared home and, eventually, kids. Her siblings thought they were a well-suited couple, but that was hardly persuasive. Fi's brother's wife's cousin was married to one of Fi's sisters, and they all still lived within eight blocks of their childhood homes. They considered Fi a wanderer for moving from the Bronx all the way to Brooklyn. They wanted to see her "settled," and she doubted that it mattered much to them who she settled with-or for.
Excerpted from The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton Copyright © 2007 by Masha Hamilton. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
A journalist who has worked for NBC Mutual Radio, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and other well-known news organizations, Masha Hamilton is the author of The Distance Between Us and Staircase of a Thousand Steps. She lives with her family in New York City.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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We often take for granted how important a book is and how other parts of the world don't have the easy access to books we do. With libraries facing lacking funds in the U.S. and the innovation of trying to establish libraries elsewhere we realize our libraries must always be viable. I only wish this had been based on the real camel libraries rather than fiction but it's thought provoking about how to make a difference, culture and what changes can possibly do to cultural belief, responsibility and how precious access to books is.
This book is a very thought provoking tale of a young American woman wanting to affect a change in the literacy in Africa. Very descriptive prose of the African landscape, traditions and myths. The characters of Ms. Sweeney, the American, Mantani the schoolmaster, Kanika an intelligent, literate young woman, etc are fairly well developed. There are interesting relationships to explore and unexpected realities exposed about the contrast of Western and African views on literacy, i.e. whether it even helps or hinders small tribes trying to survive in this harsh environment. I think that this would be a good book club book with lots to talk about. It kept I me interested throughout however the ending fell short of my expectations. It was inevitable but I would have liked more in depth discussion of the tribe¿s disappearance. Also the depth of emotion described earlier in the novel regarding Ki¿s relationships make it hard to believe that within a few hours time she would be willing to move on. All in all a very good book.