Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Fiona Sweeney wants to do something that matters, and she chooses to make her
mark in the arid bush of northeastern Kenya. By helping to start a traveling
library, she hopes to bring the words of Homer, Hemingway, and Dr. Seuss to
far-flung tiny communities where people live daily with drought, hunger, and
disease. Her intentions are honorable, and her rules are firm: due to the
limited number of donated books, if any one of them is not returned, the
bookmobile will not return.
But, encumbered by her Western values, Fi does not understand the people she
seeks to help. And in the impoverished small community of Mididima, she finds
herself caught in the middle of a volatile local struggle when the bookmobile's
presence sparks a dangerous feud between the proponents of modernization and
those who fear the loss of traditional ways.
Questions for Discussion
- One of the main conflicts in the book is between Fi and the library
proponents versus those who fear the imposition of Western values and the
loss of centuries of tradition. Can The Camel Bookmobile be seen as
an allegory for what's still taking place elsewhere in the world today? What
does the novel say about the experience of being an American overseas?
- What is gained (or lost) by the use of multiple viewpoints to tell this
story? How do the various viewpoints weave together to reinforce the theme
of books as instruments of change and growth?
- Each character is changed in some way by the bookmobile. Discuss those
changes. Specifically, Fi goes to Kenya convinced that she is bringing
knowledge to the African bush, but in the end she learns at least as much as
any other character. What are the most important lessons she learns?
- The mosquito quotes, though carefully attributed, are actually invented.
What do they add to the sections they precede?
- In some ways, the novel is peopled by outsiders. Fi is an interloper in
Kenya, Scar Boy is a recluse, and even Matani, by virtue of having been
educated elsewhere, is an outsider. Does the novel suggest that outsiders
have a role to play in changing their societies? Do you agree?
- There is a real camel library that operates out of Garissa. Why do you
think the author chose to fictionalize this story as opposed to writing
about the real camel bookmobile? What are the advantages and disadvantages
of that decision?
- Many of the people of Mididima make it clear that they do not want to be
seen as ignorant simply because they are illiterate. At the novel's end, the
traditional values seem to win out. What does the ending say to you?
- If Mididima had become a settled community, what would have been lost?
And do you think books and modernism will continue to impact the people of
Mididima, even beyond the novel's conclusion?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.