THE CAMEL BOOKMOBILE by Masha Hamilton was featured in Library Journal
Library Journal -- March 15, 2007
Books by Camel: A Heartfelt but Tricky Business
By Barbara Hoffert
Behind the Book: Masha Hamilton's The Camel Bookmobile.
an immense blue sky, past sere acacia and stands of coppery grass wrung dry
by the sun, three camels sway toward the little dome-shaped huts of the
region's nomads with a precious load of…books? Yes, it's the Kenya National
Library Service's Camel Mobile Library Service, which since October 1996 has
carried valuable reading materials to underserved populations in Kenya's
remote and drought-stricken northeast. Now this truly unique service has
inspired an engaging new novel by Masha Hamilton called The Camel
Bookmobile (LJ 3/1/07).
A journalist who has worked worldwide and the author of two other novels
(including The Distance Between Us, an LJ Best Book), Hamilton got the idea
for her Kenyan saga while driving to the Kirk-Bear Canyon Branch Library,
Pima County P.L., AZ, with her three children. Her daughter was reading
about Kenya's book-bearing camels in Time for Kids magazine, and as she
enthusiastically shared her findings, "the story came to me in a flash,"
reports Hamilton. Initially, she envisioned a child badly injured by a
hyena, and he remains in the book as Scar Boy, an outcast whose life is
transformed by the camel bookmobile in unexpected ways. But the bookmobile
would not be possible without committed librarians, and thus was born
starry-eyed Fiona Sweeney, fresh from New York City.
Like all of the book's characters, Fiona comes strictly from Hamilton's
imagination. "When I write, the characters make themselves known," she
reveals. "It's like sitting next to someone at the airport." Not that she
hopped on the first flight to Kenya to get a feel for the country before
crafting her tale. Instead, she used those finely honed journalist skills to
do the necessary research. "I wanted that information to impact me greatly,"
she says of her reading and relentless emailing, "but I wanted the story to
develop before I saw the place.
"In fact, Hamilton did not visit Kenya until her book was signed by
HarperCollins. Accompanied by her daughter, she sallied forth with the
mobile library service and had an extraordinary sense of rightness. "It was
exactly as I described, with fences built out of blown weeds," she says
happily. "I told one of the librarians he could almost be Mr. Abasi"—the
curmudgeonly director of the book's camel-driven service, who has doubts
about its worth.
the most impressive aspect of Hamilton's book is its evenhanded treatment of
the service it describes. Aimed at battling illiteracy, supporting education
efforts, and propagating the idea of reading for both knowledge and
pleasure, the mobile library service is of indisputable value. Hamilton
speaks movingly of the excitement she witnessed as the camels entered a
village, especially inspiring "in light of all those articles we see about
reading dying out." In some communities, the classroom was a patch of red
dirt under the acacia trees, and the camels delivered the only books
available for instruction.
Culture clash, shared humanity
Yet as one character complains, "The library is from another world. A world
that does not serve us." Beloved by some villagers, who are as eloquent as
Fiona in celebrating the value of reading, the bookmobile is seen by others
as a terrible threat to the life they've known forever. Hamilton has always
been concerned with cultural differences—her previous novels were set in the
Middle East—and here she shows the disruption that can arrive with the dust
stirred by the camels. But Fiona remains oblivious. Observes Hamilton, "Even
when we have the best of intentions, our lack of understanding of other
cultures can cause problems."
Throughout, though, The Camel Bookmobile also reveals our shared
humanity; one delight of the narrative is wandering amid the little
settlement it depicts and encountering people with our very hopes and fears
and sorrows. Though her fiction thus far has been set abroad, Hamilton
argues that we can learn about ourselves by learning about others: "I see
myself freshly through that foreign lens that is like me. When a friend
asked, Why don't you write about us?' I said, 'I do.'"
In the end, writing is something Hamilton does because "it's how I
understand myself and my world." She's been at it since age eight, and after
many enjoyable years of overseas reporting, she finally decided to risk
leaping into something more creative. "Journalism is great preparation for
writing fiction," she reasons, "because you let go of your ego and listen to
others. But I really came to feel that in writing fiction there is a deeper
Since Kenya's national library fixed on Camelus dromedarius as the
ideal means of "nonmotorized transport" for book delivery, the Camel Mobile
Library Service has thrived. But it's not without its problems, from
inadequate funding to indisposed camels. Of course, there is always a crying
need for books—particularly scarce in the local languages, though
English-language materials are also welcome—and Hamilton is pitching in by
encouraging authors to donate their books (see
camelbookdrive.wordpress.com). In addition, anyone interested in
donating can send materials to Garissa Provincial Library, For Camel
Library, Librarian in Charge, Rashid M. Farah, P.O. Box 245, Garissa, Kenya.
Just think, anything you send will soon be on its way by camelback across
Kenya's umber landscape, ready to educate and enthrall people living on the
margins who until recently may never have seen a book.
Barbara Hoffert is Editor, LJ Book Review
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