Friday, May 02, 2008

The Camel Bookmobile
by Masha Hamilton

Published in 2007. 308 pages.

First sentence: The child, wide-legged on the ground, licked dust off his fist and tried to pretend he was tasting camel milk.

Last sentence: And then she couldn't speak for a moment; her throat constricted as Matani's fresh water dampened her cheeks before evaporating in the merciless, thristy air.

Basic premise (adapted from the book jacket):
American Fiona Sweeney goes to Africa to help start a traveling library, taking books to settlements where people have never even held a book in their hands. Though her motives are good, Fi doesn't understand the people she seeks to help. Encumbered by her Western values, she finds herself in the midst of several struggles within the community of Mididima.

Why I read this book: The Camel Bookmobile was the April pick for Book Buddies.

Where else I get credit for having read this book: After picking it up at the library, I realized that it is also one of the current Salt Lake County Library's Reader's Choice picks. So in addition to remaining a member-in-good-standing of Book Buddies, I've completed the first of my Triple 8 "Reader's Choice" category. I'm counting this one for the Themed Reading Challenge as well - since my theme is "Books About Books."

Some concepts explored in the book: Cultural differences. The importance of literacy and education. The role of women in society. Making a contribution to the world. Interpersonal relationships. Marching to a different drummer.

Three favorite passages:

It was more than a hope; it was an intuition now, or maybe a vow. [page 132]

There were limitations to language, even when it was shared. Sometimes words were not sturdy enough to hold all the needed meaning. She'd discovered that as a child, when she sought to find her mother in the harried and unreachable widow, and she felt it again now. [page 156]

Jwahir's father shook his head. "Those are words from your husband, not you. The issue is values. Ours are not theirs. We respect our ancestors' lessons. I know the name of my father's father's father's father. Do they in the city with their books know this?"

Here, Jwahir was tempted to interrupt, to ask whether he could recall the name of his mother's mother's mother's mother. She knew the answer, though. She'd heard this litany before, along with the recitation of the endless list of male preceded by male preceded by male. As if the women did not exist, except as containers shaped by others' visions, holders of the dreams of fathers, husbands, sons. She felt a surge of irritation coupled with resolve. Like her father, she was traditional. But her father's words fed her conviction that she had to break with tradition on some matters at least. It was right to risk everything to do what she believed, what she desired and needed - as a woman. [page 163]

Something else I liked: Fiona applies the metaphor of being "a zebra among giraffes" to herself and her situation in African. This idea comes from something she has seen on the African plains - a small herd of giraffes with one zebra among them. "He follows them everywhere," she is told. "Dreaming of being a giraffe?" she asked. "I imagine he lost his family somehow and he's longing to find another one to fit into" is the response.

One last thought: Fiona tries to learn some of the colloquialisms of the African community she visits. A final one she learns is "fresh water on your cheeks" - expressed to her as part of a good-bye and thank you. I find the phrase endearing.



  1. I really liked this one, and it gave me a lot to think about.

  2. This is on my list of books to read. I'm happy to have read a review on it!