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Sunday, April 12, 2009

From Blue Monkeys to Magical Detectives, Farmer Classic Enthralls with Adventure, Originality

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The year: 2194. The place: Zimbabwe. In The Ear, The Eye and The Arm, Nancy Farmer's second novel, the author imagines a futuristic Africa where civil unrest still reigns. As Chief of Security, General Amadeus Matsika has spent a good part of his career dealing with violent gangs - he knows exactly how rough the streets of his city have become. So, he hides his family behind electrified gates, keeping outsiders at bay with alarms, automatic weapons and a computerized Doberman. The Matsika children - Tendai, Rita and Kuda - have never ventured outside the family estate alone. Unlike other children, they have never participated in team sports, attended school, or gone to a movie with friends. Even though the kids know their father only wants their safety, they're getting mighty tired of being cooped up at home all the time. Tendai, especially, longs for an adventure. As a Boy Scout, he has earned all of his merit badges (completed at home, of course), but one - in order to become an Eagle Scout, he needs an explorer's badge. The problem? It requires leaving the Matsika estate. After all, "Exactly how much exploring could you do in a garden?"

Enter the Mellower, a sunny, soothing man whose job is to exert a calming influence on the family. By hypnotizing them with praise, he allows the family, especially General Matsika, to de-stress and begin the day in a peaceful manner. Simple and happy, the Mellower is as exuberant as a child - and as mischevious. It is he who suggests asking for permission and securing the necessary passes while the children's father is under the Mellower's trance. The plan goes off without a hitch, and the trio head outside the gates for the first time without a chaperone.

With no street smarts whatsoever, the sheltered kids are soon kidnapped by a malevolent duo called Knife and Fist, respectively. Dumped in a wasteland inhabited only by the mysterious Vlei people, Tendai and his siblings are put to work digging antiques (like plastic sacks and dishware) out of the landfill. Rumor has it they will soon be sold to a dangerous gang called The Masks. Escape comes from a surprising source. Freed, the kids stumble their way into unfamiliar territory. Not knowing whom to trust, they must find their way home; that journey, however, will not be easy. Tendai, Rita and Kuda will encounter a strange city where staying means they can never leave; a terrifying She Elephant who will stop at nothing to find them; a greedy caretaker who wants only ransom money; and a gang war which could destroy their lives forever. Along the way, they will shed their innocence, band together, and fight for their own survival.

Despite its exotic locale, The Ear, The Eye and The Arm tells a universal story. It's about a son desperate to prove himself to a critical father; it's about a boy whose adventure will test and try him; it's about the man he will become because of his quest. It's a coming-of-age tale at once familiar and unique. Steeped in African mysticism, it's a colorful, consuming, even funny story. What really sets the tale apart, though, is its fascinating characters - from the formiddable General Matsika; to his brave, but naive children; to a sarcastic blue monkey; to a trio of lovable detectives with special powers - who make the plot a constant surprise. Original and absorbing, this is a wild, thrilling ride that will keep even the most reluctant reader thoroughly enthralled.

Grade: B


  1. Oh my gosh I LOVED this book as a kid but I had just about forgotten about it, it has been so long since I had read it. I really like Nancy Farmer and I've been meaning to reread this when I have a chance.

  2. I loved this book--I thought it was so original!

  3. I just finished my first Nancy Farmer book (The Sea of Trolls) and thoroughly enjoyed it - I'll have to look into getting a copy of this one!


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