Monday, December 29, 2014

Overdue library books

In The Camel Bookmobile (2007), Masha Hamilton weaves a fascinating, multi-layered story about some overdue library books. This isn't an ordinary library, however. The books are, in fact, packed on the back of a camel and taken to remote villages in Kenya, where most of the people can't even read, let alone read English, which is the language most of the donated books happen to be in. The camel bookmobile is viewed differently by different people in these villages. To some it represents progress, the way into the modern world. To others it represents evil, a threat to old ways and old wisdom.

Fiona Sweeney, an idealistic 36-year-old American woman, commits herself to this project, and she particularly enjoys visiting Mididma, an isolated village of semi-nomads which includes a teacher, an old woman and her granddaughter who are literate and treasure books, almost any books Fi happens to bring on the camel.

Among the library patrons is a teenager called Scar Boy since being attacked by a hyena and badly disfigured. When the bookmobile returns to Mididma, Scar Boy refuses to return the books he borrowed, thus threatening the village's future as a stop on the bookmobile's schedule. This is a problem even for those who object to the bookmobile because of the shame it will bring to the village. Everyone begins pressuring Scar Boy to return the books, but it turns out he could no longer return them even if he wanted to.

Much else happens in Hamilton's story. The teacher's lovely wife falls in love with Scar Boy's father, while Fi and the teacher discover a strange attraction to each other. The little girl who loves books decides she wants to follow Fi to America to become a teacher, and Scar Boy is discovered to have a rare talent nobody knew about. Meanwhile a drought threatens the very existence of the village.

The camel bookmobile really exists, and has since 1996. Hamilton's novel, besides telling a delightful story about the power of books, brings our attention to that fact and makes us wonder about some of the true stories it must have inspired.

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