The Camel Bookmobile

CamelBookCoverThis month sees the release of Gotham Novel teacher Masha Hamilton’s third novel, The Camel Bookmobile.  The story centers around a camel bookmobile that delivers books to villagers in a remote area of Kenya.  The camel bookmobile has one rule: if a single volume goes missing, the entire settlement is cut from the route.  When an adolescent refuses to return his library books, it sets off a crisis between those who distrust the modern world and would prefer the bookmobile never return, and those who are convinced their people need the wisdom of outside if they hope to survive. In the middle of all of this is Fiona Sweeney, a librarian from Brooklyn who has come to manage the camel bookmobile.

Anticipation for the book is running high. It’s an April Booksense pick and has gotten starred reviews in both Booklist and Library Journal. Here’s what Booklist has to say: “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.”

If you can’t wait to begin reading this book, here’s the very opening:

Scar Boy

The child, wide-legged on the ground, licked dust off his fist and tried to pretend he was tasting camel milk. Nearby, his father spoke to a thorny acacia while his older brother hurled rocks at a termite mound. Neither paid him any attention, but this didn’t change the fact that for the child, the three of them existed as a single entity. It was as if he drank dust, beseeched a tree and threw stones all at once. He took this oneness for granted. Separate was a concept he was too young to recognize. Nor did he know of change, or fear, or the punishment of drought. All of life still felt predictable, and forever, and safe.

Now, for instance, this child-father-brother unit was enveloped in the reliable collapse of day, when the breeze stiffened, color drained from the sky and shadows tinted three sets of cheeks simultaneously. The child welcomed this phase. The texture of the graying light transformed faces. It made people, he would later think, resemble charcoal portraits.

Something disturbed this particular dusk, though, tugging his attention away from the intimate comfort of his tongue on his skin and the dust’s piquant flavor. Out of the gloom of nearby bushes rose a rigid, narrow object, standing frozen but quivering. This was odd. Everything in his experience either walked or dashed or flew or was blown by the wind or planted in the ground – in other words, it plainly moved or, less frequently, it didn’t.

What could he make of this harsh immobile shuddering, this tense and stubborn suggestion of flexibility? He crawled closer, then sat back to look again.

From this perspective, he spotted another object, small and round to the other’s long and narrow. It was the color of a flame.

In fact, there were two.

Aha, he thought with satisfaction, the puzzle starting to shift into place. Eyes. Eyes, of course, moved and stayed still at once and could flicker like firelight. So the object must be human. Or maybe animal. Or maybe ancestral ghost.

Whatever it was, he understood from somewhere, an inherited memory or intuition, that he needed all of himself to meet it. So he called to his other parts, his father-brother. “Here I am,” he said, a gentle reminder. Even as he spoke, he didn’t look away from the eyes and the rigid tail; because of that, he saw the object begin to grow larger. And then it lunged. It joined him, as if it too wanted to be part of the son-father-brother entity.

He was unaware of pain. Instead, the moment seemed unreal and confusing, like drifting off to sleep in the midst of one of his father’s sung tales and losing track of the story. What had already happened? What was happening still? He would have to ask his father in the morning.

Only one part remained distinct: the sound that would echo in his mind until death. The wet, high-pitched ripping of his three-year-old flesh as the spotted hyena, never a kind beast and now mad with hunger, dove onto his leg, chomped at his waist and then reached his face and gnawed, grunting with pleasure.

Later he would hear how his father turned, killed the beast with a miraculously aimed knife, scooped his son into his arms and began running, the child’s blood weeping down the father’s arms. He would learn that all this took less than five meditative breaths – but he would never quite believe it. In his memory, the crunching of bone and tearing of flesh stretched over a decade of sundowns and sunups, disrupting all patterns, making everything separate and fearful and dusty and fleeting forever.

Copyright 2006© Masha Hamilton.  Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.  To learn more about Masha and her book, visit:

CamelBookMobileHelp Improve Literacy in Africa
Though The Camel Bookmobile is a novel, the camel-borne library actually exists, operating in Kenya’s isolated Northeast Province.  Initially launched with three camels on Oct. 14, 1996, the camels bring books to a semi-nomadic people who live with drought, famine, and chronic poverty. The books are spread out on grass mats beneath an acacia tree, and the library patrons, often barefoot, sometimes joined by goats or donkeys, gather with great excitement to choose their books until the next visit.  But of course, the bush is hard on books and the traveling library badly needs more.  The camel bookmobile welcomes and appreciates contributions of books.  To that end, there is a donor site to give you some easy ways to send books to the real camel library: camelbook or enter this URL in the address box of your browser: