Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton

This book was bound to appeal to me, as it is written about a librarian who decides to travel to Africa to work with the Camel Bookmobile. The librarian, Fiona Sweeney, is trying to find something to do with her life that has some meaning. She feels bogged down in her job as a public librarian, as though she makes no difference in the people she works with, does not affect their lives in any way. She learns of the Camel Bookmobile, which is literally a camel train that takes donated books out to isolated tribal villages in Kenya. Fi is particularly struck by one village that she enters, and this village is the center of the story. It is the village of Mididima, where we meet the teacher and his wife, the tribal elders, the drum maker and his sons, and the widowed grandmother and her granddaughter. Of course there are many others in the village, but these are the characters that become central to the story. The other main character is the public librarian from the Kenyan city of Garissa, where the Camel Bookmobile is based. Mr. Abasi is a grumbling, isolated man who became a librarian because he did not want to have to interact with people, and he believes that the people funding the Camel Bookmobile are misguided in their attempts to educate the natives. He understands the views of the elders, and how set they are in their tribal ways. The books the camels bring just cause trouble.
This is the main issue in the book, the struggle between the way things have always been and the ways in which they are changing. The elders of the Mididima tribe do not want change, and they see the books as a threat to their way of life; Mr. Matani, the teacher, as well as a few others in the tribe, see the books as the only way into the new world that has come to bear on their lives. Fi is caught in the middle of this struggle, and does not understand the affect that her American views have on the tribe, for good or ill.
Hamilton does a wonderful job developing each of the characters through their own voices. As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about how the lives of these people intertwine, about village life itself, and about the disruption caused by "the white woman" and her books. Although Hamilton is not a librarian, she captures the way that working in a public library can sometimes feel, how bureaucratic it can get. But she also gets at the reasons people want to work with books, to share them with others as a way of opening up their lives to every possibility. Fi even misses some of her more eccentric patrons while she is out in the bush. But she grows through the trip, and if she doesn't quite achieve the goal of recruiting all of Africa to her cause, she learns more about herself, and those she is serving, in the process.

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