The Camel Bookmobile: A Novel

The Camel Bookmobile: A Novel

by Masha Hamilton


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061173493
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/01/2008
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 590,944
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

The Camel Bookmobile

By Masha Hamilton


Copyright © 2007 Masha Hamilton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-117348-6

Chapter One

December 2002-Brooklyn, New York

The American

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Camel Bookmobile 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Ginerbia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Owned and signed: It was a quick read. The underlying meaning of literacy in this book was great but the book was kind of a bumpy read and the plot wasn't very deep.I had the opportunity to see Masha Hamilton speak about this book and was totally impressed by her. I totally appreciate the book better now that I learned more about the story behind the story. The true camel bookmobile is really an inspiration.
bookappeal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fiona Sweeney, a 36-year-old librarian looking for meaning in life, leaves the Bronx for Kenya to establish a mobile library serving remote desert villages like Mididima. She finds eager patrons in Kanika, a brave girl raised by her steely grandmother who harbors a secret desire to become a teacher, and Matani, the mild-mannered teacher who supports Fi¿s mission. However, Matani¿s wife and other community members oppose Western ¿knowledge¿ as a threat to traditional wisdom. Tensions flare when Scar Boy, a youth shunned for his deformities, refuses to return his library books. The future of the camel bookmobile and Mididima itself are at risk. Hamilton captures the quiet beauty and underlying danger of the African desert while exploring her story through the unique views of each character.
goldiebear on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am not really sure where to start. I really enjoyed the writing style -- very gentle and able to grab my attention. I love the story it's self -- as a novel. (Which, thank goodness it is!) But I am unsure of the whole message of the book. I was actually a bit glad in the end -- it went to show that everything doesn't always turn out the way you expect it to. Nothing is perfect. I would hardly think that something like this would ever really be a true story -- because how could an American really understand the minds of this culture? It was a bit too romanticized for me. I liked the quote at the end of the book: " Do they want to be part of a 'larger world'? And who should be teaching whom?"
eenerd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great story, encircling the American, the Librarian, the Teacher, the Grandmother, the Girl, Scar Boy & his family, and the rest. Everyone is trying to do what is best, but no one really wins or loses here. A quick and very interesting read.
cbl_tn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Initially I didn't think I would like this book. The characters at first seemed more like stereotypes than like real people. Once the action shifted to the African village, the characters finally came to life. After I finished reading the novel, I learned from the back matter that the author didn't actually visit the real Camel Bookmobile until the novel was almost ready for publication. Perhaps that accounts for the initial awkwardness I felt with the characters.I think the author was successful in using the story to provoke reflection about a number of issues, rather than using the story to tell readers exactly what to think. What is the best way to provide assistance in developing countries? Are the most pressing needs physical, such as adequate food, water, and shelter, or are education and literacy more important in order to provide people with tools for improving their quality of life? How should/do individuals and charitable organizations make funding decisions¿based on the needs of the recipients, or the interests of the donors? What about spiritual needs? I was left with a lingering sadness for people who believe that they have done something to cause the bad things, like drought and famine, that happen to their society.
lizhawk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Based on true events, author Hamilton creates fiction in a place where we can taste the dust, swelter under the sun, know the people -- and care about them. Looking for adventure, American librarian Fiona Sweeney travels to northeast Kenya to travel by camel "bookmobile," bringing books to nomadic peoples caught between the tug of tradition and the pull of the outside world. Kanika and Scar Boy and their teacher, Matani, know that opportunities await through books and learning while others of the village, including Matani's wife, believe they'll survive clinging to old ways.
glendao on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a wonderful book, not only about Africa, but the people too. I loved it!
jlynno84 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Some good librarian escapism. Masha Hamilton has a beautiful writing style and paints pretty scenery. I didn't like this one as much as her Staircase of a Thousand Steps, the voice of the villagers just seemed to to lack authenticity. But overall it was a diverting summer read.
jenforbus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.One of the strengths of this novel is Hamilton's efforts 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. 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. But then there are times when the cultures mesh and the similarities between fellow members of the human race emerge.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.
carladp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I discovered this novel while researching the National Kenya Library Service. It was a quick read and I enjoyed my "visit" to Kenya. Transplanted Fiona has a passion for books (and perhaps her Western values). Kanika and Matani are two Kenyans who seem to particularly bond with her.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Certain books are allowed to be less than perfect. For example, any book about librarians or book collecting or even writing is such a welcome publishing event that I give it some slack; just the mere fact that someone decided to choose these as subjects is enough to allow the author some latitude. The Camel Bookmobile, consequently, I have let the belt out a couple of notches. The writing is acceptable. The characters shimmy up against stereotype here and there. The author lets the genuine details appear now and then and the book shines. I worried through the first few chapters, concerned the author was trying to make a point, change the world, but she got bigger as the novel moved along and showed both the dark and the light. The chief librarian seemed thin throughout; surely time in England would have developed his character a bit more? I ended up deciding to like the book, despite its small flaws. It is, after all, the story of the power of words on lives.
jrepman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bittersweet tale of the power of books in rural Africa
carlym on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a novel about an American woman who goes to Kenya to help operate a mobile library, carried by camels, that goes to small villages. A Kenyan librarian is in charge, so it's not entirely clear why they need a foreign librarian who speaks very little Swahili and none of the tribal languages to help. The story focuses on one village, where one of the villagers has been educated in the city and is trying to teach the children to read. Not all the villagers are pleased about the bookmobile, and I think the book does a good job of showing the mixed reactions to and unintended consequences of Western aid projects. But the story, while engaging, is pretty unrealistic on the whole. I also thought it would be more about the bookmobile and less about the characters' relationships. Apparently the camel bookmobile really exists; maybe a nonfiction account would have been more interesting.
gaeta on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hmnnnn.....where to begin? I had heard good things about this book. Usually my international book group doesn't fail me......but this time it did....badly.As I said....where to start with this mess of a novel? Shall we talk about the author's muddled message---the program is pretty much seen as failure, yet she plugs it enthusiastically in her epilogue .Or how about the trite and unbelievable "love story"?How about the arrogance of entering into people's minds that the author cannot even begin to understand? How about the author's disconcerting admission that she had pretty much finished the novel before she went to Kenya for a few more details--- a bit of local color don't cha know--without changing the fabric of her story ? Just stretch your preconceived plot on the bed of political correctness--it's all good! And let's not forget the author's too-cooler--than --you- explanation of why she wrote the book in the first place. Appallingly superficial, a cheat designed to give the reader the smug feeling that they can understand an "exotic land"--it gives a bad name to novels calculatingly presented as book group fodder.
Readermom68 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have to agree with previous reviews, that while I enjoyed the story as I read it, much I felt wasn't very believable. I, too was happy with the ending of the story. To have it end differently would have completely undermined anything the author was trying to say and move it completely into the realm of fantasy for me. I liked how the story made me consider what effect books had on the educational process of a culture in which literacy is looked on with some suspicion.
bastet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting but sometimes frustrating book about a woman who leaves New York to bring books to a remote bush tribe in Africa. The changing points of view become disturbing after a while, because the author focuses on too many people. Still, the issues of literacy and what it means to ancient cultures are worthy of discussion.Hamilton's first book was much better written.
punxsygal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A novel. Fiona Sweeney, idealistic, travels to Africa to deliver books to villages that have never held a book. The one rule not to be broken, all the books must be returned. Then in Mididima, the young man they call Scar Boy does not return his book.
sparks62 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fiona Sweeney, a librarian dissatisfied with her life in New York, goes to Africa to find fulfillment with the Camel Bookmobile, a project to distribute library books to remote African tribes. When 2 of the library books are not returned, it threatens to disrupt the project and the survival of the tribe.I enjoyed the discussion of the impact of American literature on the tribe.
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bklvrMG More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.