Skip to main content


June 17, 2008

Masha Hamilton: The Camel Bookmobile

Posted by carol
Today's guest blogger is Masha Hamilton, the author of Staircase of a Thousand Steps, The Distance Between Us and, most recently, The Camel Bookmobile, which centers on a traveling library that delivers books in a remote section of Africa. Fact and fiction merge in the story, and Masha talks about the real-life inspiration for the novel and how book groups in the U.S. have given people in Kenya the gift of the written word. If you'd like to help or see what others have done, visit the Camel Book Drive site.

Although I've had a variety of uplifting book group experiences with all three novels, The Camel Bookmobile has led to incredible interactions, ones I will never forget. It's reinforced my belief that book groups are often havens for their members, safe settings for intellectual and emotional exploration of the most intimate kind.

The Camel Bookmobile is inspired by real life. Four days a week, a camel bookmobile sweeps through the bush in northeastern Kenya in scalding temperatures to bring books to a region with absolutely no infrastructure --- no roads, no electricity, no corner shops, no villages. But while Kenyan librarians began the real-life bookmobile, the novel's characters include a librarian from Brooklyn, NY, who travels to Africa to help the project get off the ground. Through a weaving together of multiple viewpoints, the story explores the pitfalls of bringing modernity to a traditional society, as well as the ambiguous role of Americans overseas, where they often exhibit the most generous of spirits but a surprising lack of knowledge about (and sometimes, interest in) local cultures. The character of the American librarian, Fiona, sprang, in part, from what I observed during trip to Afghanistan in 2004.

Because I have spent many years as a journalist, I was afraid reporting tendencies would kick in and interfere with a novelist's need to allow the characters to resonate and be changed. So I didn't travel to Kenya to see the real camel library until the novel had already sold to HarperCollins and was in the final editing stages. Once there, many things moved me, but perhaps nothing more than the faces of youngsters when the camels arrived with their load of books. At the time, 2006, the region was enduring its third year of drought and famine on top of chronic poverty. The response to the camel library, even at such a difficult period of want, said much about the transformative power of stories. I saw first-hand how books connect us as humans, even when we live in vastly different circumstances. I saw, too, what heroes and heroines the Kenyan librarians are, and dedicated my novel to them.

I also saw the camel library badly needed more books, as well as contributions for more camels, tents to provide shade, and additional book boxes. After The Camel Bookmobile was published, book groups quickly offered to help. I heard from many groups who wanted me to speak (in person or by speakerphone) not only about some of the touchier themes of the novel, but also about that region of Kenya and how they might contribute.

The Desert Chicks book club in Arizona held a dessert and wine party and raised nearly $1,000 to send books to the library. Members of Kathy Patrick's Texas-based Pulpwood Queens Book Club, who meet in a beauty salon to discuss books amid hair dryers and curling irons, also contributed to the real camel library. The camel bookmobile volumes are either in English, Kenya's official language, or Swahili, the language of the marketplace, but recently, a book group in Australia read the novel and then got in touch to suggest raising money so local writers could collect traditional stories, write them in Somali, and get them simply published --- a wonderful way to ease the transition to the future by respecting the past.

Not only have these far-flung book lovers shown an eagerness to reach out to a remote region of Africa, they've also shown great sensitivity about wanting to provide the kinds of books that would be most useful to these semi-nomadic, fledgling readers living in a world very different from our own. Book groups are powerful. I'm thrilled that because of them, The Camel Bookmobile has played a small role in what may be the finest goal of literature --- bringing people together around a library's worth of good stories that not only entertain, but also increase understanding and broaden human connection.

---Masha Hamilton