Captivating Futuristic Tale

The Eye, The Ear and The Arm by Nancy Farmer

Dear Saralinda:*

Sometimes the price of prolific reading is that books start to seem alike. You enter a genre and before you've read ten pages you can predict what the characters will do and how the plot will twist.

It is in contrast to such monotony that a book like The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm shines. Nancy Farmer's juvenile fiction novel is unlike any other book I've read in its genre.

Sure, it is fairly typical to have a young teenager who is suddenly without parental supervision and must take care of younger siblings and make difficult moral choice. But the standard elements end there.

First, the book is set in Zimbabwe, in the year 2194. That alone makes it stand out. Nor does the setting stagnate. We travel from a walled-in compound to a radioactive waste dump to a village of the past to a swaying hotel a mile in the air.

A second fascinating element are the mirrored triplets of characters that we follow through the book. There are the detectives: the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. Whilst still in their mother's wombs, they were exposed to nuclear radiation and each developed a special sensitivity that made them effective detectives. The Ear has an ear the size of an elephant and super-sensitive hearing. The Eye has extra strong vision and can see even minute objects at great distances. The Arm, definitely the central character of the trio, has long spider-like limbs. His special ability is an over-keen sensitivity to the emotions of others. He's an empath who makes Deanna Troi look callous.

As unusual and interesting as the detectives are, they are secondary to General Matsika's three children: Tendai, Rita, and Kuda. Tendai is the oldest and his father puts extreme pressure and responsibility on his 12-year-old shoulders. Tendai is conscientious and wants to earn his father's approval but is frustrated and hurt because he always seems to fall short. Rita is 11 and filled with spitfire and energy, always wanting to get into mischief. The youngest, four-year-old Kuda, is often likened to a lion. He has the potential to be a great warrior say his instructors because of his boldness and fearlessness.

The three children are kidnapped and face a series of dangers-some rather benign at first appearance, until the initial layer is stripped back. Ultimately, The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm is their story-especially Tendai-no matter what the title might indicate. (And you have to admit, The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm is a much more interesting title than Tendai, Rita, and Kuda or The Three Children.)

Third, the book blends seemingly incompatible flavors. It mashes spirituality with technology with military and diplomatic strategies. It tosses in dashes of crime, history, folklore, genetics, environmentalism, cultures futuristic and primitive, and a healthy dose of parenting theories and failures.

I'm further impressed that with all the elements, ideas, and metaphors Farmer has thrown in, that the book remains cohesive and tells an interesting, gripping story. Although the book starts out slowly (in part because it takes a bit of time to get your bearings in this unfamiliar world) it soon picks up pace. The narrative alternates between the eyes of different characters, most often Tendai and the Arm, so we frequently know most of what is happening. This detracts not at all from the suspense and manages to make the story more intense.

Nancy Farmer doesn't spare the violence in this 1995 Newbery Honor book, something unusual for books geared at this age group. Nor does she make the spiritual questions easy or trite. The children are in danger for many months and must be resourceful to even survive-and their survival is in no way assured.

While the book is strong on plot and themes, it is in the characterizations that Farmer really shines. Everyone in this book is unique and has a great deal of depth-even when they appear on only a few pages. Some of the supporting cast include the Mellower, a traditional praise singer who looks after the children; the She Elephant, a large, pushy woman who buys the children; the Vlei, deformed people trying to eke out survival, and even a genetically engineered, talking blue monkey.

The book wraps up with a glossary that defines many of the unusual words used and gives it origin (Shona, English, French, etc.). There is also an appendix that discusses concepts such as Ndaro, the spirit world of the Shona, witchcraft, slavery, praise singing, tribalism, Great Zimbabwe, Monomatopa, and the Vlei people. Personally, though, I'd advise holding off on reading any of them until you've read the entire book. Most of the unusual words can be figured out from the context and Farmer often defines the foreign phrases immediately within the text. The appendix gives enough information to compromise some of the suspense of the story, though it is fascinating to read afterward.

It is possible that the author is able to write such an unusual and multi-layered story because she herself has an unusual background. She was raised in what she describes as a "quirky hotel" on the outskirts of Mexico. It had such guests as rodeo wranglers and circus travelers. She served in the Peace Corps in India and studied chemistry. Eventually she moved to Africa and worked as a lab technician in Zimbabwe. She also spent time as an insect pathology technician. All of these experiences prepared her for her writing career-a career she didn't start until she was 40 years old.

The Ear, the Eye, and The Arm is one of the better books I've read this year. It definitely ranks as one that I'd recommend without reservations. It has tremendous value for a classroom as well-there are so many different layers that could be explored and lead to further research (heck, maybe you could use it for one of your reading/writing assignments next year). Regardless of its "educational" value, the entertainment value is high. It's a book I plan to re-read many times.

Aunt Bridgette

I'm reading and reviewing juvenile fiction in search of books that my niece would enjoy. With each book that I send her, I'm enclosing a letter sharing my experience with the book. After I strip out the strictly personal information that the letters contain, I'll post them here as reviews. After all, my goal in the letter is to encourage her to read the book and make her experience with it more enjoyable, perhaps I can do the same for you.

* I've changed my niece's name to protect her identity. Saralinda is a name I borrowed from another beloved children's book. She's the princess in James Thurber's The 13 Clocks.

--B. Redman