Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm

Author:  Nancy Farmer

Rating:  *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
                  Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  Middleschoolers

Assigned for my 7th grader's Language Arts class, this 1995 Newbery Honor book is set in Zimbabwe in 2194.  Essentially science fiction, it offers a unique view of the future along with a backward glance to Zimbabwe's tribal culture.

Military General Amadeus Matsika and his wife have 3 children:  Tendai, a 13 year old boy; Rita, his capable 11 year old sister; and little brother Kuda, 4 years old.  When the three children are kidnapped by the evil Mask gang they must employ all their wits to escape several fantastic scenarios.  Meanwhile, Father and Mother hire 3 unusual detectives (the title characters) to search for the children.

With the book's background in Zimbabwean culture, the reader must become familiar with a number of animistic terms:

Mwari-the supreme god of Zimbabwe, valuing the traits of loyalty, bravery and courteousness.
Shona-the dominant tribe, to which the Matsika family belongs
mhondoro-the spirit of Mwari, and the spirit of the Zimbabwe land
vlei people-a ghost-like people that wander the outskirts of Harare, the capital city
Gondwanna-terrorist gang from northern Africa
shave-a wandering spirit who enters a person to teach a special skill
ndoro-talisman with a connection to the spirit world

Considering all this talk of the spirit world and spirit possession, one might ask if the book is even appropriate for young Christians.  That's why my review basically warns families to proceed with caution.  With a view towards animist tribes still in existence today, I believe the story provides an enlightening contrast to Christianity.

Farmer has created an imaginative, unique setting in this novel.  Tendai, Rita and Kuda have to navigate between several worlds coexisting in their very modern Harare.  First they find themselves lost in Dead Man's Vlei, a toxic waste garbage dump outside the city, run by the domineering woman known as the She-Elephant.  Realizing they are gradually becoming subdued by passive vlei culture, they escape to their next stop, Resthaven.

Resthaven represents ancient village life, again existing somewhere on the outskirts of the modern city.  Here Tendai begins to find his strength in a very paternalistic society, while Rita must submit to traditional female roles of work and servitude.

Once again they make an escape, only to land at Mrs. Horsepool-Worthingham's very English and very imperialistic home and garden.

All this time, the Eye, the Ear and the Arm are providing some comic relief and getting ever closer to tracking down the children.  The detectives themselves are products of radiation mutations and are named based on their physical attributes that have grown especially acute.  The Eye can see very far, the Ear can hear painfully well, and the Arm has sensitive, psychic abilities to feel others' emotions and occasionally read minds.

The final showdown takes place in a futuristic skyscraper where the masked gang hopes to use Tendai as a spirit vessel to conquer Zimbabwe for an alien spirit world:

"Without the masks we are men, but with them we take on the powers of the spirit world.  And the powers must be fed!"

If the plot seems fantastical and far-fetched, it is!  Sci Fi simply doesn't suit everyone, but it does have a growing audience.  Coexisting with Harare's futuristic holophones, flying taxis, Nirvana guns and house robots are poverty, crime, old traditions and the occasional infanticide.

The themes Farmer addresses include contrasting old ways of life with new; coming of age/strength of character in a culture obsessed with false praise; living a life of meaning and sacrifice; the mixture of good and bad in people and cultures.

Some families will be most troubled by the spirit world focus:

"You didn't have a choice about who possessed you:  when a spirit wanted you, he or she gerneally got his/her way.  If you resisted, the spirit made you sick."

"Tendai held the ancient ndoro and prayed:  'Help me,' said Tendai to the unknown ancestor who had owned it.  'I am your child.  I'm alone in a dark place and I don't know what to do.  Please, please help me."

Because I have a Christian view of the spirit world, this did not concern me overmuch.   Christians acknowledge evil spirits exist to do battle and we are protected by the blood of Christ.  Likewise, we know of many cultures still in bondage to spirit control, until they meet the Light of the World.

What bothered me, and made for a good discussion point with my daughter, was the concept that cultures can't be judged as right or wrong:

"In the city they kill babies all the time with poverty and crime.  You're so stupid!  You haven't been here two weeks and already you dare to judge us.  Resthaven is a living culture.  You can't pick out the bits you like and throw away the rest.  It all works together."

Again, in Christianity, everything we hold dear as "cultural," must still be brought into submission to what is biblical.  Evil is evil, whether it is the belief that twins are bad luck, or that girls inherently possess less value, or that murder is justified.  Biblical and moral standards of right and wrong cannot be carelessly tossed about on the whims of shifting cultures.

The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm won't appeal to everyone, but if you find it assigned to your middleschooler, you may wish to keep an open mind for discussions about spiritual warfare and cultural mores.

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