People in the children’s literature world have long raved about Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, so I finally got a copy to read. I think I understand what the excitement was about, but as with the movie The Titanic, the hype caused me to hope for more than it was reasonable to expect a story to provide. The tale is original and engaging, moreso for being set in the future in Zimbabwe, incorporating Zimbabwean traditions and history as the normative culture, with other cultures—African, European, and American—as foreign, even exotic.
The story centres on the three coddled Matsika children, who escape on an adventure so the eldest—Tendai—can earn a Scout badge. This melding of recognizable contemporary cultural artefacts into Zimbabwean life 200 years in the future provides a welcome connection between the reader and the characters, as does the young children’s desire to try their fledgling wings and explore the world outside their overly guarded, high-tech compound home. Adventure is certainly what they get, when they are kidnapped to be sold to the last surviving guerrilla group; all others had been eradicated by their father, the great General Matsika. The kidnappers take a while to learn the true identity of the children, snatched at random, during which time the Matsikas engage the assistance of the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, detectives endowed with special powers from being born too close to a nuclear power plant meltdown. This elaborate set-up is supported by a carefully choreographed series of disconnects that move the children from one form of trouble to another, their path, the detectives’, and the guerrillas’ slowly spinning towards each other in a decaying orbit, culminating in a final scene of chaos and destruction… This might sound seriously excessive, but Farmer’s tale sways between excitement and reflection, movement and stasis, so artfully that the reader is never bored, never overwhelmed. The balance is superb.
The ride is wild, and often we are uncertain that all will end well, but Farmer delivers her multitude of characters safely where they all belong—good or bad. In the end, we return almost to status quo—as most good children’s novels should—with the Tendai having learned much about himself, as well as his family and his world.