Apr 17, 2016

The Camel Bookmobile

by Masha Hamilton

An Irish-American librarian promotes a project that will take books to remote, semi-nomadic tribes in East Africa. More than that, she travels to Kenya to see the project first-hand, and accompany the books into the bush. The mobile library travels by camel, the only reasonable mode of transportation in the area. I kind of hoped this story would be about culture and place, but it is mostly about people. How the arrival of library books in the dusty village of Mididima affects distinct characters in very different ways. To the American woman it is a way to spread literacy and bring the modern world to a 'backwards' area. The African librarian from Nairobi (who is in charge of the actual books) is a lot more skeptical about the program's success. While the children of the village see the arrival of foreign books as something new and exciting, many of the adults in Mididima view them as a threat to their way of life and culture. Or merely as ridiculous for their lack of application to the situation (what good is a cookbook to a tribal villager, who doesn't even know what most of the ingredients listed are, much less have access to them? what good to their children a book about pop stars in England?) While the American woman realizes a lot of the books are useless or inappropriate in context, she still insists on the importance of the literacy program. One village woman uses the bookmobile's arrival time for clandestine meetings with a man who is not her husband- as nearly the entire village is then gathered around the camels. A young girl sees the library as an avenue for her to escape to Nairobi and further opportunities. The village schoolteacher, the drum-maker, the elders who lead the tribe, they all feel the implications of foreign ideas introduced via the camel library. But there is another person in the village who sees the books as a tool for something quite different. This boy was mauled by a hyena as a child, and is feared and shunned for his disfigurement. One day when the camels come to retrieve the library books, he does not return the two he had borrowed. This would seem insignificant, but to the Nairobi librarian it is a great offense, and to the villagers possibly calamitous, as it brings shame and fault upon them, and they expect severe retribution from the elements... Due to the (fictional) quotes at the head of some chapters, I really thought mosquitoes (or some disease brought by them) would figure in some key event in the story, but that never happened. I suppose they were merely symbolic.

An interesting story. Of course I liked the bookish aspect and the wide view of the very different things a mobile library could mean to so many people. I was surprised and pleased at what turned out to be the boy's use of the books, even though it meant they were destroyed. And the reactions that got. And the ending- it was not a pat, feel-good ending like I expected, but fairly realistic. I enjoyed the story and its implications, but the author's light writing style is not quite my thing. So while I liked it for an easy read, I won't be keeping this one (it came from a thrift store).

There is a real travelling camel library in Africa that inspired this novel. You can read more about it on African Library Project and at the Camel Book Drive.

Rating: 3/5       308 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Book Chase
Jenny's Books
An Adventure in Reading
Book Clutter


bermudaonion said...

I do enjoy a book like that, even with a light writing style, from time to time.

Jackie Bailey said...

I've not heard of this one, but it sounds really interesting. Anything that compares different cultures, especially their attitude towards books, fascinates me. I'm going to add this to my wishlist - thanks for drawing it to my attention!

Literary Feline said...

I read another of Masha Hamilton's books and enjoyed it--in part because of my interest in this one, although I still haven't read it. I'm not sure how that worked out. This does sound like something I might like.