Friday, September 14, 2012

Farmer O'Dell

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm
by Nancy Farmer
Recommended Ages: 12+

This Newbery Honor Book by the author of The House of the Scorpion conjures a unique world in which futuristic fantasy and ancient folklore are intertwined. Set in the year 2194 in the African nation of Zimbabwe, it relates the adventures of three sheltered, privileged children when they escape from the walled compound of their father (the country's ruthlessly efficient security chief) to have an adventure and maybe earn a few scouting badges along the way. Instead of crossing the vast, dangerous city of Harare by bus and getting home in time for dinner, the children are almost immediately scrobbled by a gang that lives in a trash-filled wilderness called Dead Man's Vlei. There, surrounded by gray silent people who have learned to blend in with the filth around them, they are forced to slave in the garbage mines while a gangster picturesquely called the She Elephant decides whether to sell them.

Tendai, the older boy, worries that he is too sensitive and dreamy, and possibly cowardly as well, since he overheard the children's martial arts instructor telling their father that he wasn't soldier material. Nevertheless he shows great courage and protectiveness towards his ambunctious little brother Kuda and his "shooperer" sister Rita (that word means she always knows exactly what to say and when to say it to keep people at each other's throats). Besides, he also seems to have a knack for communicating with the spirits of the land, especially after he discovers a spiral-shell amulet that goes back to the first king of Great Zimbabwe. And so, as the children escape from one captivity to another, and then another—each one seeming to belong to a different world, or a different time—something like destiny seems to be guiding their adventures and misadventures.

Meanwhile, Tendai's frantic parents have hired three most unusual detectives—unusual, to start with, because they're the only detectives anyone in 22nd-century Harare has heard of. Each named after his most distinctive feature, Ear, Eye, and Arm were born with physical deformities and special sensitivities, thanks to a toxic waste disaster that struck the village where they grew up. Now they overcome the curse that comes with their gift to track the movements of the General's lost kids, though they always seem to be a step behind. Their side of the adventure also demands great courage, especially as these three men are so vulnerable and the dangers they face are so bewildering. Only at the climax of the story do both the children (especially Tendai) and the detectives (especially the empathic Arm) join together to fight the supernatural evil that threatens the whole country.

This book rewards sympathetic readers, but it is not for the prim or the faint of heart. Its depiction of the animistic spirituality of ancient Africa, to say nothing of the spirits themselves, make for a fascinating study of cultural traditions, but also call for an "occult content advisory" so that conscientious parents may be prepared to discuss this material with their children. The enemy Tendai confronts at the end of this book is really scary, and what it plans to do to him is stomach-turningly awful. The book unflinchingly depicts both good and bad aspects of its characters and the values they represent—well, most of them—inviting you to pity some of its less noble characters and to recognize the flaws of the noblest. It ranges from the miserable underbelly of low-life society to a pinnacle literally a mile above it, with breathtaking dangers and strange whimsies at all levels. It combines an eye-opening study of a culture you may never have visited even in your readings with a gripping, mind-expanding tale of pure imagination. And it establishes Nancy Farmer, once again, as a builder of worlds with a gift for storytelling.

The King's Fifth
by Scott O'Dell
Recommended Ages: 12+

Scott O'Dell (1898-1989) is widely, and justly, regarded as one of the USA's most important children's authors. Only the second American to win the international Hans Christian Andersen Award (a distinction he shares with only four other American authors and one illustrator), he won a 1961 Newbery Medal for Island of the Blue Dolphins and, in a fifty-five-year career, published over two dozen more young-adult novels, mostly historical fiction set in Mexico or the American southwest. Four of them were Newbery Honor books, including this 1966 book, which has been made into an anime television series and, as if it needed any more honors added to it, made me shed tears by the end.

The narrator is seventeen-year-old Estéban Sandoval, a talented map-maker from Spain, who has come to the New World to seek his fortune. Even though to him this means the chance to draw beautiful maps of places no European eye had seen before, young Estéban is not immune to the gold fever. He attaches himself to a wily and ambitious conquistador named Blas de Mendoza, who leads his small band—including three musicians, an ostler, a priest, and an Indian girl—in a frankly obsessed search for the rumored Seven Cities where the streets are said to be paved with gold. What they find instead brings ruin to several native tribes, death and heartbreak to themselves, and (for Estéban himself) a trial before a court whose rules of evidence are not above being bent by greed and twisted by the hope of finding out where the boy hid his hoard of gold.

The title of this book refers to the crime Estéban is being tried for: withholding the King's share of whatever gold is discovered in Spanish America. But the reason Estéban cannot pay this amount is revealed only at the end of a double narrative, going back and forth between his trial and his memories of the terrible adventure of which he was a part. Estéban experiences at first-hand how the European conquerors' greed for gold led them not only to do untold damage to the beautiful and mysterious native cultures they encountered, but also to destroy themselves. Even though our young narrator himself catches this disease, he is fortunate enough to be redeemed through grief, through suffering, and through love. And it is this realization, especially of the last of the three, that may move you to tears at the end of this powerful, sensitive, memorable book.

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