Masha Hamilton's compelling third novel, The Camel Bookmobile, leaves no room for doubt: Books are essential. Cookbooks, novels, parenting books—they all matter to Fiona "Fi" Sweeney, a librarian from Brooklyn searching for fulfillment atop a book-laden camel in the arid and dangerous bush of Kenya.
Tiny, far-flung villages populated by nomadic tribes, largely forgotten and neglected by the greater population of a more modern Africa, welcome the bookmobile and Fi with a combination of curiosity and wary distrust of Westerners' belief that the rest of the world needs guidance. That division is most evident in the small farming community of Mididima, and it is here that the entire program is put in danger.
The bookmobile relies on a stringent policy: If a single book goes missing, the entire village is dropped from the route. When books disappear in Mididima, the village is bitterly divided between those who would prefer the bookmobile never return, and those who are convinced that their people need the wisdom of the outside world to survive.
At the center of the maelstrom are Kanika, a young woman whose future relies upon the contact with the modern world the bookmobile provides, and Taban, a talented artist and outcast who refuses to return his books. When Fi arrives in the village to coax the books from him, she is thrust into Kanika and Taban's drama as well as the more adult dramas of the progressive teacher, Matani, his traditional wife, Jwahir, and her lover, Taban's father, Abayomi.
The Camel Bookmobile vibrates with the life and landscape of Africa, and Hamilton shines when presenting the foreign, and often brutal, traditions of Mididima. She neither condones nor condemns, but profiles daily existence with clear, sparkling prose and a well-executed plot peopled with characters readers can't help but care about deeply.
The author's background as a journalist and world-traveler is evident, and her experience combined with her impeccable research into the real-life Kenyan Camel Mobile Library program makes for an enlightening new novel.
Kristy Kiernan is the author of Catching Genius (Berkley). Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 December #1
When Fiona Sweeney decides she'll do her bit for humanity by bringing books to remotest Kenya (via the real-life Camel Bookmobile), she doesn't know that her efforts will cause one tribe to start feuding. From the author of The Distance Between Us, an LJ Best Book. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 March #1
New York City librarian Fiona Sweeney has taken an unusual assignment in Kenya--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 LJ Best 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, LJ 12/06; the story was suggested by the Camel Mobile Library Service actually provided by Kenya's national library.--Ed.]--Jenn B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll.-Northeast, TX[Page 74]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
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 nave 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.)[Page 39]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Adult/High School-- 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 Watson, Harford County Public Library, MD[Page 179]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.