As the story opens in 1989 Kenya, a small boy walks innocently into the jaws of danger, savaged by a hyena, saved by the quick actions of his father, but horribly scarred for life. By 2002, the boy, called Scar Boy by the villagers, remains hidden from sight in the family hut, his visage too disturbing to the others.
Taban (Scar Boy) has only one friend: a village girl, Kanika, who approaches the hut at night. Under the cover of darkness, the two speak of ordinary things, pretending that Taban is not marked by his fate. Into the village of Mididima (“Those Rooted in the Dust”) comes the Camel Bookmobile, a lending library, and these two adolescents become a critical part of the enterprise and the fate of literacy in their village.
The Bookmobile is a recent project of delivering books to a nomadic population in hopes that increased literacy for the younger generation will yield different results for their futures: “Our children’s children can pull behind them a joy as big as the moon.” Fiona Sweeney, a New York City librarian, has volunteered for the bookmobile, desiring to deliver this unique gift, to share her love of reading and expand the horizons of the villagers.
Fiona’s motives are genuine. She approaches her job with no expectations other than to bring books to the hungry minds of the villagers. In no way is this New Yorker prepared for the culture clash that erupts between the ancient rituals of the elders and the promise of change for the children. Clinging to their identity and traditions, the elders determine that the Camel Bookmobile is ultimately a threat but are restricted from taking action until the rules are broken. Should any books fail to be returned, the contract with the lending library will be broken.
The lonely, scarred boy gives the village the excuse it needs to banish Fiona and her books. Using the pages of his borrowed books to draw, Taban refuses to return them, setting up a conflict that cannot be resolved. His incipient artistic genius is Fiona’s focus, but events transpire to deny the boy’s talent as the fate of Mididima is decided. Nor has Fiona reckoned on the attachments she makes with the village children and their teacher.
Most significant is the lesson of the Camel Bookmobile for villagers and librarian, the fresh curiosity of the children, Fiona’s widening horizon and love for this remote place, and nature’s demands for survival. Fiona is the beneficiary of an unexpected bounty, her perspective forever changed, her memories precious and bittersweet as she returns to the familiar world.
Fate intervenes, the controversy put aside in view of larger concerns as a threatening drought forces the villagers to move to a more favorable place, tradition trumping change. Although not as dense as this author’s other novels, there is genuine spirit in this small novel and a hope for the future that remains undiminished.