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Summary and book reviews of The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton

The Camel Bookmobile

by Masha Hamilton

The Camel Bookmobile
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 336 pages

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Book Summary

The Camel Bookmobile follows an American librarian who travels to the arid bush of northeastern Kenya to give meaning to her life, but ultimately loses a piece of her heart. A compelling novel that shows how one life can change many, in spite of dangerous and seemingly immutable obstacles.

When Fiona Sweeney tells her family she wants to do something that matters, they do not expect her to go to Africa to help start a traveling library. But that is where Fiona chooses to make her mark: in the arid bush of northeastern Kenya, among tiny, far-flung communities, nearly unknown and lacking roads and schools, where people live daily with drought, hunger, and disease.

In The Camel Bookmobile, Fi travels to settlements where people have never held a book in their hands. Her goal is to help bring Dr. Seuss, Homer, Tom Sawyer, and Hemingway to a largely illiterate and semi-nomadic populace. However, because the donated books are limited in number and the settlements are many, the library initiates a tough fine: if anyone fails to return a book, the bookmobile will stop coming.

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. There the bookmobile's presence sparks a feud between those who favor modernization and those who fear the loss of the traditional way of life in the African bush. The feud heightens when one young man—"Scar Boy"—doesn't return his books. As promised, the library stops all visits, but Fi goes to the settlement alone, determined to recover what has been lost.

Evocative, seamless, and haunting, The Camel Bookmobile is a powerful saga that challenges our fears of the unknown. It is a story that captures the riddles and calamities that often occur when two cultures collide. It follows an American librarian who travels to Africa to give meaning to her life, and ultimately loses a piece of her heart. In the end, this compelling novel shows how one life can change many, in spite of dangerous and seemingly immutable obstacles.

Chapter One

December 2002—Brooklyn, New York

The American

Fiona Sweeney shoved a pair of rolled-up jeans into the corner of her purple duffel bag. Outside her bedroom window, a siren's wail sliced through the white noise of a wet snowfall. Those eerie man-made moans were part of New York City's wallpaper, a signal of trouble commonplace enough to pass unnoticed. But Fi registered this one, maybe because she knew she wouldn't be hearing sirens for a while.

She turned her attention back to her bag, which still had space. What else should she take? Lifting a framed snapshot, she examined her mother as a young woman, wading into a stream, wearing rubber boots and carrying a fishing pole. Fi cherished the photograph; in real life, she'd never known her mother to be that carefree. The mother Fi had known wouldn't want to go to Africa. In fact, she wouldn't want Fi to go. Fi put the picture facedown and scanned the room, her attention drawn to a worn volume of Irish poetry by...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

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 ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Camel Bookmobile raises important questions but, happily, does not feed us pat answers.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (807 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Hamilton weaves memorable characters and elemental emotions in artful prose with the lofty theme of Western-imposed "education" versus a village's perceived perils of exposure to the developed world.

Booklist - Carol Haggas

Starred Review. With a heartfelt appreciation for the potential of literature to transcend cultural divides, Hamilton has created a poignant, ennobling, and buoyant tale of risks and rewards, surrender and sacrifice.

Library Journal

[A] rare and balanced perspective on issues surrounding cultural intrusion and the very meaning and necessity of literacy, using rich and evocative prose that skillfully exposes the stark realities of poverty and charity in today's Africa. Highly recommended.

Author Blurb Margot Livesey, author of Banishing Verona, Homework and others
In this vivid, absorbing novel, Masha Hamilton transports her readers, even more surely than the camels do books, to the village of Mididima and the struggle between traditional values and western education. Richly peopled, full of conflicts and surprises, The Camel Bookmobile made me think and feel in all the best ways. My only regret was that the book had to end.

Reader Reviews

MG

The Camel Bookmobile
The Camel Bookmobile is a gentle story of a woman who travels to Africa to bring literacy to illiterate people. As a teacher, I often wonder about the importance of some of what we are teaching our kids. The Camel Bookmobile does an excellent job of...   Read More

Louise Jolly

A Camel Bookmobile...Fantastic!
Fiona Sweeney is a 36-year-old librarian from New York. She decides, somewhat naively, to move to Garissa, Kenya in Africa in the hope of educating the children and adults of small villages dotting the vast landscape through reading books and ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

As a foreign correspondent for a decade, Masha Hamilton chronicled events overseas, first working for the Associated Press in the Middle East and then later, in Moscow, reporting for the Los Angeles Times, writing a newspaper column, and reporting for NBC/Mutual Radio. Hamilton covered the intefadeh, the peace process, and the partial Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, as well as the coup and collapse of the Soviet Union, the growing independence in Soviet republics, and Kremlin politics. Early in 2004, she ...

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