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.
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)
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!