A Girl Named Disaster – Nancy Farmer

Boy, Nisaba Be Praised is just growing and growing, isn’t it? I’m Mia, Jessica’s college friend and fellow book addict. I’m not as cool as Mary, since my literature degree stopped at a B.A., but rest assured my love of reading burns bright! I’m no stranger to writing about what I’ve read, and while this is a new environment and I’m not (to my knowledge) being graded*, I hope that I’ll make a good showing nevertheless.
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*Mwahahaha, that’s what she thinks! – Jessica**
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**I knew it! -Mia

Jessica: Mia and I both belong to a Young Adult book club with a few other friends. Last month Mia picked our book: A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. By chance, both of us had read it for the first time when we were younger, at similar ages, so it was interesting for both of us to revisit it from a more critical mindset.

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IQ: “Her body worked all day planting, weeding, baby-sitting, washing – oh, so many chores! – but her spirit had nothing to do. It became restless, and so she gave it work, too.
aaaIt learned how the Matabele ants carried their young at the center of a line while the soldiers ran along the outside. It learned that when Uncle Kufa pursed his lips as he was eating, he was angry at Aunt Chipo. It learned that the wind smelled one way when it blew from the stream and another when it came from the forest.
aaaNhamo’s spirit had to be kept very busy to keep her from losing her temper.
aaaThe other girls in the village never felt restless. Nhamo was like a pot of boiling water. “I want… I want…,” she whispered to herself, but she didn’t know what she wanted and so she had no idea how to find it.” (pages 1-2)
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Nhamo is essentially an orphan. Her mother is dead and her father… who knows? Her aunt and uncle are cruel, but Nhamo can withstand the many chores and hateful glances. But when they tell her she must marry an old, stupid man with three wives to break her father’s curse, she cannot stand it anymore. Ambuya, her grandmother, tells her to go to Zimbabwe, which is only a few days away by boat. Unfortunately, Nhamo GETS LOST AND HAS A GREAT AND LONELY ADVENTURE…. or maybe Little did Ambuya know, but Nhamo’s journey would take much longer…. DUN DUN DUN

Mia: You can see how much both of us enjoy writing summaries. Nhamo has a long adventure in the forest and on the water where she is, more or less, by herself. Her experiences bring up a lot of questions about lines between the human, animal, and spirit worlds; what makes a family; and the strength of body and mind in trying times.

Jessica: So Mia, do you remember how you responded to this book as a kid? I only read it the one time, but I know you read it a few times.

Mia: Well, I mostly remember being absolutely captivated by the adventure story the book provided. Nhamo’s strength through adversity and her experiences were utterly outside of everything I knew, and Nancy Farmer does a great job of keeping the story at a clipping pace while maintaining a pretty-but-practical style of writing–which to my mind matches Nhamo’s personality well. What were your impressions?

J: You know, I don’t really remember! I definitely loved it. I think I probably gobbled it up in one bite. The adventure is definitely a big draw, especially for girls. There are so few adventure books that feature heroines. On Amazon there were a few reviews that were obviously written by boys who said things like “It was too boring” and “This is a girl’s book!” which broke my heart.

M: Boring? What! I never. I am a big fan of rereading books, especially since I tend to read things quickly on the first time through, and this is one that definitely drew me back again and again. There are so many facets to the story–adventure, family, the spirit world, storytelling–that I could always look for something different when I picked it back up.

J: Yeah, I really enjoyed rereading it. I’ve always meant to, so thanks for picking it! The quote we picked up there is one I really identify with now. You mentioned it, and it was exactly the one I wanted to feature, as well. I wonder, though… I can’t remember if that quote jumped out at me back then. I associate that sentiment, wanting but not knowing what you want, with twenty-somethings more than any other age group. Aside from maybe babies!

M: Babies indeed. The fact that you don’t really remember the quote affecting you then speaks to me quite well of the importance for looking back at books you loved or even liked as a child. For most of us, our priorities have changed drastically from what they were when we were preteens, and in reading books that shaped us (or didn’t) as young adults, we get a chance to reflect on what we wanted, or thought we wanted, or didn’t know we wanted. This segues us back to the book, though. Jessica, do you think Nhamo has any better idea of what she wants at the end of the book than she did at the beginning?

J: (My dad never rereads books. He reads primarily for plot, so it’s understandable, but I still think he’s missing out on SO MUCH!) That’s a really interesting question. I think she’s definitely more fulfilled, but maybe that desire for the unknown is something that stays with us always. Here’s another question, since I don’t know what else to say: Nhamo ends the book (SPOILER ALERT, OBVIOUSLY) being bookish and smart and in a modern place. I think Farmer does a pretty good job of not favoring the modern over the traditional (that’s assuming a false dichotomy, but we’ll leave that alone for now). BUT we have that ever-so-common trope of the bookish and intelligent girl in a book whose audience is primarily bookish and intelligent girls. When Nhamo learns to read and thinks about going back to her village where there aren’t any books (combined with her reaction to Uncle Kufa’s misspelled letter)… I don’t know, it seemed almost… too easy? We talked in book club about how it seems pretty obvious that the audience she is writing for is mostly white, and definitely not African. It almost felt to me like it was a Western idea of a happy ending for this girl. What do you think?

M: It’s easy to look at Nhamo’s choice to embrace modernization as a Westernized betrayal of her roots, but I think largely it’s a choice made largely out of practicality for Nhamo. Electricity and stoves mean no more cookfires for which she has to gather fuel, plumbing means she doesn’t have to haul water from the stream, and in general her daily life is made much easier and more convenient. One could say–and I’m doing this because I’m not sure if this is what I believe myself, so I’m saying that one COULD say–that with so much time freed up that she doesn’t have to use doing chores, a more intellectual approach is natural, especially as the other characters keep emphasizing what a smart girl Nhamo is and how many opportunities her intelligence could afford her. (This was one thing that bothered me about the book–I think Nhamo showed us quite well how intelligent and capable she is through her adventure, and it felt a little strange to have the other characters keep saying that.)

J: I agree with you, and I don’t think it’s an odd ending, really. I guess I just wonder if Farmer chose Nhamo to end up at Efifi, either consciously or unconsciously, because of her background as an educated, scientific type woman and because her audience is primarily educated, middle-class girls. Anyway, this is getting LONG and we should probably wrap up. Is there anything else you wanted to mention/discuss? The spirit world/characters? Nancy Farmer being white but having lived and worked in Mozambique? Something else?

M: I feel like any of those topics would bring us along another five or ten pages, so I’m a little wary of jumping into the fray.

J: I’m definitely with you! Maybe it’s enough to say that there is a LOT more we could discuss about this fantastic book, eh?

M: Rather! I wonder what LeVar Burton would say.

J: Don’t take our word for it! Go and read it yourself!

(Still Jessica…) Actually, we’ll make that super easy. I know I have a copy of Girl Named Disaster in a box somewhere, but I bought a new (used) copy for the book club SO I’M GONNA GIVE IT AWAY.

Here’s the deal: write a comment (make sure to include your email!). When I get ten comments, I’ll draw a random number and email the winner! I’m going to have to limit this to the US and Canada as I am very poor, sorry!

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10 thoughts on “A Girl Named Disaster – Nancy Farmer

  1. Yay giveaways!! I love these kind of reviews that are discussions between multipe people, fun to read and they bring up so many good points. Even if I don’t win A Girl Named Disaster I’ll be sure to read it and come back to look at this discussion :)

    I don’t like it when a character’s positive traits are continously repeated, because like you said, we can figure that out on our own. Regardless of the color of the author, this book gets recommended quite a lot based on being a good fantasy with African main characters.

  2. I’m trying to do the POC Reading Challenge and stick to my own blog’s theme of speculative fiction, which has been hard. Hearing about this book makes me happy, then; even if I don’t win it I’ll be sure to go read it.

    sylvia AT whatifbooksetc DOT com

  3. You had me at book giveaway. ;) Actually, you (or rather, this book) had me lo these many weeks ago when we read the first chapter together at Leah’s house, but I haven’t gotten around to actually reading it yet. (I did go to all three bookstores in my neighborhood, but none of them had it. FAIL. And then I got distracted by some other books a friend loaned me, which I’m reading right now.)

    Anyway, I liked your review of this book. I skipped the second half of it to avoid the spoilers, because I fully intend to read the book sometime, but what I did read just makes me more interested. Adventure story, yay! And I agree that it’s totally ridiculous for people to dismiss it as a “girl’s story.” Why? Because the main character is a girl, and parts of the book revolve around aspects of women’s lives? Well, I read books with male main characters that deal with issues of men’s lives, and I’m a woman. The world hasn’t ended yet. I don’t believe in “boys’ books” and “girls’ books.”

    I know you have my email address, but just in case… martablanchard at gmail dot com.

  4. Oh! I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time. After reading your review (spoilers and all), I’m even more excited to delve into this book. YA fiction with strong ladies is so wonderful.

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  7. This is an amazing giveaway! If I win, after I read it, I will definitely be donating it to my local library, they are always in need of new books.

  8. Your girls are so funny! I love the format, i.e. discussing the novel. I totally felt like I was eavesdropping on your conversation. :D Own the book. Met the author. So glad you’re featuring it. :)

  9. Pingback: POC Reading Challenge | Nisaba Be Praised

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