Camel Bookmobile (Hamilton)

The Camel Bookmobile 
Masha Hamilton, 2007
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061173493

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Education—B.A., Brown University
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York, USA 

Masha Hamilton is 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 and The Camel Bookmobile. She lives with her family in New York City in (From the publisher.)

Hamilton worked as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press for five years in the Middle East, where she covered the intefadeh, the peace process and the partial Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Then she spent five years in Moscow, where she was a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a newspaper column, "Postcard from Moscow," and reported for NBC/Mutual Radio. She wrote about Kremlin politics as well as life for average Russians under Gorbachev and Yeltsin during the coup and collapse of the Soviet Union. She reported from Afghanistan in 2004, and in 2006 she traveled in Kenya to research The Camel Bookmobile and to interview street kids in Nairobi and drought and famine victims in the isolated northeast.

A Brown University graduate, she has been awarded fiction fellowships from Yaddo, Blue Mountain Center, Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. She teaches for Gotham Writers' Workshop and has also taught at the 92nd Street Y in New York City and at a number of writers' workshops around the country.

She is a licensed shiatsu practitioner and is currently studying nuad phaen boran, Thai traditional massage. She lives with her husband and three children in Brooklyn. (From the author's website.)

Book Reviews
Hamilton's narrative instinct prevails, and a welcome complexity develops as Fi begins to realize that the delivery of books isn't an entirely benign enterprise. When the disfigured boy simply refuses to return his books, his rebellion gives rise to a serious rift that affects not only his family and the tribal elders but Fi herself. An unreturned library book hardly seems like the stuff of massive conflict, but Hamilton makes us see how much is really at stake in a poverty-stricken place where every possession carries the weight of significance. A larger conflict wouldn't do justice to the notion of honor as lived by these people: it extends all the way down to the smallest stack of books.
Clair Dederer - New York Times Book Review

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.
Publishers Weekly

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 (The Distance Between Us) 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.
Jenn B. Stidham - Library Journal

(Starred review.) With a heartfelt appreciation for the potential of literature to transcend cultural divides, Hamilton has created a poignant, ennobling, and buoyant tale of risks and rewards, surrender and sacrifice.

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Camel Bookmobile:

1. Talk about the resentment toward the bookmobile on the part of some of the villagers. What prompted it and are those fears/resentments justified.

2. What about Scar Boy, perhaps the story's most complex character? In an interview with the American Library Association, Hamilton says Scar Boy almost wrote himself. What motivates him?

3. Can literacy and literature truly be destructive to a tribal culture? How might both traditional ways and modernity be blended to the benefit of all? Is that possible?

4. For those interested in donating books to the bookmobile in Kenya, go to the Camel Book Drive website.

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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