The Ear, the Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
I must admit, I have always been a serial rereader and as a child I reread The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, as well as A Girl Called Disaster about five times each . I decided to return to The Ear to see how it holds up.
I still love this book because it has such a mishmash of genres. It’s sci-fi futuristic, it’s filled with adventure, there’s a coming of age story, there’s a detective story and Shona beliefs about ancestors, spirits and witchcraft are integral to the plot. Ancestors can pass their gifts on to their descendants, and if it is necessary, the mhondro or spirit of the land can enter people to help them save Zimbabwe. At one point, the children reach Resthaven, a walled community that decided 200 years ago to live as their ancestors did and to deny the advances of technology. Tendai loves the traditional village life because it feels so right, especially compared to his machine-filled home, but he can’t deny that there are some problems too. In Resthaven, Rita has to work harder than he does because she’s a girl. As well, when twins are born, one must die, and the witch who cursed the mother and caused twins must be found and punished. Traditional life isn’t seen as perfect, but it also isn’t denigrated as the bad old days.
The novel also talks about the way that people put a blind eye to other people’s problems. The children had no idea that there were place like Dead Man’s Vlei, an old garbage dump, where people live and mine the plastic and other resources. The people who live there are seen as disposable people, out of sight, out of mind, but the Vlei is also a safe place for people who have been thrown out of regular society. A lot of stock is put in the way that too much Praise may help people feel so good that they ignore the experiences of others.
You are allowed to mock me, but I only found out that Nancy Farmer is white when I was in high school. At first, it bothered me because I was concerned about appropriation and (when I was younger) authenticity, but rereading the novel again I think that it demonstrates a love for Zimbabwe and its people. It doesn’t make the country or the characters exotic and the appendix mentions that her explanation of the spirit world of the Shona, and of the Shona as a people is simplified because a young non-African audience might not understand. I did some research and found out that she worked as a scientific researcher in Mozambique and Zimbabwe from 1972 to 1988 and lived through some very dangerous situations, especially because there were civil wars occurring in both countries at the time. She returned to America mainly for her son’s sake. Rereading the novel now with that in mind, my main thoughts are that I hope that Zimbabwe can someday be as bright and peaceful as what she’s imagined, because right now it’s a dark, hard place.