“Someone was standing by his bed, a person completely unlike anyone Tendai had ever met.”
Tendai, Rita, and Kuda are the highly isolated and pampered children of a general or some shit in a far future Zimbabwe. Tendai, who is on the precipice of “manhood” at the age of thirteen, convinces their Mellower (a British guy who sings praise songs and basically hypnotizes the entire family every morning) to help him and his siblings sneak out of their compound so they can explore the city of Harare and earn their scout badges, but of course they get kidnapped almost as soon as they’re out the door, adventures ensue, etc. etc. etc.
Nancy Farmer’s books almost always have shiny medals on them, and The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm is no exception with a silver Newbery honor. I love her highly decorated The House of the Scorpion SO MUCH that I had high hopes for this one, but, honestly? I think it’s dated and is kind of a mixed bag in terms of quality; it’s good, but with some serious reservations.
(I’m also going to take this moment to say that I am suffering from a head injury, so if you find yourself missing my normally dazzlingly witty prose: TOUGH TITTIES.)
As for the good, Farmer, as always infuses the book with her INSANE imagination. Automatic dobermans, vlei people who melt into the mountains of garbage that are their home (I imagined them kind of like those terrifying hoarder women in Labyrinth), the mutated, titular detectives sent to find the kids; Nancy Farmer excels at creating a vivid, often creepy vision of the future, and these details are what lend an otherwise ho-hum adventure story some serious spark.
Unfortunately, the adventure story is just that: ho-hum. It was so formulaic that eventually I got tired of it, to the point that I almost didn’t finish. Kids get kidnapped, then the detectives are sent to find the kids, then the kids escape their kidnappers MINUTES before the detectives get there, move on to next danger, escape MINUTES before the detectives arrive, and so forth and so on for three hundred pages. Yawnsville.
My real and true problem with this book, though, comes from the children’s adventures in Resthaven, a community within yet outside of Harare that is basically a preservation of traditional Shona tribal life. Resthaven is portrayed as an idyllic return to a blissful state of coexistance with the natural world until the children uncover “barbaric” practices, get all up on their judgey high horses, and trick the tribespeople into letting them hightail it out of there. Now, I am not an expert on Shona culture, but as I was reading this part of the narrative I found myself getting uncomfortable. How accurate was her depiction of this indigenous culture? And where does Nancy Farmer, a white American woman who, granted, lived in Zimbabwe and Mozambique for some time, get off being so critical of an indigenous culture? The children’s reaction to some of the more brutal superstitious practices they encounter smacked of white colonists rolling up into the dark continent and proclaiming the cultures they found there broken and brutish. Fuck that.
On the flip side, Farmer does slip in just the tip of a critique of the white British colonial treatment of Africans via the ways in which certain characters interact with their robots, but I don’t think she actually took this far enough. Unless the kids reading it are either a) Already familiar with the history of that area, which most likely they aren’t, or, b) are reading the book with an adult who can explain that to them, it would probably go right over their heads. I think I only really picked up on it because I used to live in South Africa and the dialogues between master and robot were almost identical with dialogues between white person and “help” that I unfortunately overheard, even in 2008. Still, at least it’s there, even if she took the teeth out of that criticism by kiiiiiiind of making the kids little miniature imperialist assholes when they were in Resthaven.
So, that’s that. Just a meh book, and unfortunately I think it made me realize that rather than me being a huge fan of everything Nancy Farmer touches, really I think I just love The House of the Scorpion and don’t particularly care for anything else she’s written. This I think is a prime example of the nineties push in multicultural literature for kids without pausing to question who has the right to tell these different cultures’ stories. Oh well. You live, you learn.
For music I want to do The Cramps’ “Human Fly” for the arm. He was almost always compared to a wall spider for his long, gangly limbs, but whenever he was described as such this song popped into my head so what can you do.
Where I got it: the library