July 19, 2007

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The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton (HarperCollins, 2007, 308 pages)
Reviewed by Lucas Lund news@hippopress.com

This novel chronicles the challenges and transformations that take place both in a tribe in Kenya and in a librarian, Fiona Sweeney, from Brooklyn.

Fiona joins a project to increase literacy in Africa, the eponymous camel bookmobile, a lending library of books donated from around the world and carried by camel into the African bush. The people of the participating tribes may borrow books, but if the book are not returned the library will stop its visits. A young disabled man, Taban, or Scar Boy, in Fiona’s favorite tribe from Mididima, does not return his books.

Taban’s refusal could be called the central conflict of the novel, but conflicts outnumber the seven protagonists. Large issues also abound. Should a traditional people be modernized? Can the West, with book donations about grizzly bears or the Arctic, help Africans facing an immanent drought?

Fiona is arguably the main protagonist, but she is not the most interesting. She feels like a device used by the author to invite a Western audience into the book. I am not convinced that we need her. The Kenyan characters are far more interesting, though Fiona’s conflict is familiar to many of us in the West. She fears a life too narrowly lived, and this fear compels her to Africa as much as or more than any philanthropic desire to fight illiteracy in Africa.

Initially I thought that Bookmobile was unstructured with all of its protagonists, but I believe that Hamilton intended the book’s structure to mimic the volunteer experience. Like most volunteer experiences, the book’s beginning and ending are awkward and mercifully brief. The heart of the book is the people served, the six Kenyan protagonists. A-Lucas Lund