Review

The Camel Bookmobile

by Masha Hamilton

Veteran reporter and two-time novelist Masha Hamilton's latest
book takes readers into the remotest areas of the African continent
to explore what happens when modern Western traditions are
introduced into the very fabric of a third world, traditionally
nomadic society. Based on actual events, THE CAMEL BOOKMOBILE tells
the story of an American librarian (and her book-bearing caravan)
who permanently alters the bedrock of one Northeastern Kenyan tribe
in both positive and negative ways.

Prior to her trip to Africa, 36-year-old Fiona Sweeney was living a
fairly cushy life. She liked her job, her apartment in Brooklyn
and, yes, her boyfriend, Chris. Her day-to-day existence was fairly
comfortable --- which, of course, was part of the problem. It had
been a while since she felt excited or passionate about anything,
which was why she needed a change.

Unlike the rest of her family, Fi hadn't fully squelched the urge
to travel --- to do something outside her comfort zone. The trip to
Africa to start a traveling literacy program seemed like the
perfect alternative; plus, she would be doing a good deed for
humanity. The only problem, though, is that not everyone would see
it this way --- especially those on the receiving end.

As in most cases like these, Fi's idealistic vision of what it
would feel like to "bring literacy to Africa" was far rosier than
what it turned out to be in reality. Villagers don't line up in
anticipation of her visits. The rules for "checking out books" are
far too strict in her opinion. And traveling via a camel caravan is
exceptionally grueling work for a woman --- especially in the
sweltering heat. 

What makes matters worse is that many of the elders in Mididima, a
small farming village along her route, are completely against the
books to begin with. They view Fi's project as an unwelcome
intrusion into their traditional way of life and want nothing to do
with the written, contemporary world she represents. When one of
their children refuses to give back the books he borrowed ---
which, in turn, brings shame to the entire community --- Fi begins
to wonder whether her efforts to "make a difference" were all in
vain.

On the whole, THE CAMEL BOOKMOBILE raises many important questions
regarding modern education versus ancient traditions. Why, for
example, are most of the books in Fi's cache written in English? Is
it always a good idea to introduce stories with contemporary
elements (TV, telephones, Justin Timberlake) when many African
villages don't even have electricity or running water? Is it
naïve for an American woman to think that a book-bearing camel
is really the most effective path to "making a difference"? And
making a difference for whom…the American or the
Africans?

Fi's enthusiasm grows tiresome at times, and many readers will
cringe at her seemingly oblivious behavior. Her "one night stand"
with one of the teachers from the village (that she thinks might
turn into something else) raises even more questions about her
idealistic intentions and her ability to even understand the
gravity of the situation she's in. Hamilton's decision to separate
the book into chapters narrated by different characters, while
giving a well-rounded picture, may end up fragmenting the story
more than it needs to be. We don't get enough of a look into any of
the characters' lives to care about them more than superficially,
and we don't get enough of a common through-line in any of their
individual stories (aside from the stolen book quandary) to want to
dig any deeper.

Nonetheless, THE CAMEL BOOKMOBILE is an enjoyable surface
introduction to a subject that deserves further
investigation.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 12, 2011

The Camel Bookmobile
by Masha Hamilton

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0061173487
  • ISBN-13: 9780061173486