Nhamo is a virtual slave in her African village in 1981. Before her twelfth birthday, Nhamo runs away to escape marriage to a cruel husband, and spends a year going from Zimbabwe to Mozambique. Alone on the river in a stolen boat, swept into the uncharted heart of a great lake, she battles drowning, starvation, wild animals. (from Goodreads)
A Girl Named Disaster isn’t actually related in any way to my favorite Nancy Farmer book, The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, except that it takes place in roughly the same location. Girl is set WAY before Ear, though– back in the 1980s– and it’s about a person going from a tribal/rural living to an urban one (Ear is about the reverse).
They make good companion books, and not just because of what I just said in the previous paragraph. Girl has got the same sort of magical realism to it– or maybe paranormal/fantasy is the better word? True, you don’t really know if Nhamo is actually seeing spirits and having visions or if she’s just protecting herself against the cruelties of life by retreating into her imagination, but either way it’s a cool story.
Nhamo is a complicated character. She starts off ignorant and needy and a little bit nuts, and through the course of the story she becomes more independent and knowledgeable. Like most kids, though, she needs a family to support her and give her a place in the world, and much of the book is about Nhamo looking for that family she needs. Ironic, then, that a good chunk of the story is Nhamo alone on an island, with only some baboons for company.
Nancy Farmer’s books always have these complex character stories, and though there’s the usual bildunsroman plotline that’s in a lot of YA stories, it’s less focused on individual development and more on how that individual learns to interact with other people without completely subsuming their individual identities into someone else’s. So while Nhamo does grow as a person, her growth is both in relation to herself (the time spent alone) and in relation to other people (her time with her Doctor-mother and her great-grandfather).
To be honest, though I enjoyed reading A Girl Named Disaster on the whole, it’s not my favorite Nancy Farmer book. The pacing is slow and while the fantasy elements are neat, it’s not as fantastic a plot as some of her other books. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something more grounded in reality, then Girl would be a good book to read– it talks quite a bit about the recent political histories of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and the rags-to-riches story is always a compelling one.
Read: May 17-18, 2013