Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5
A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer was one of the 1997 Newbery Honor selections. It tells the story of Nhamo, a girl from Mozambique who ends up on many adventures. Nhamo lives in a traditional village; she is responsible for many onerous chores, like grinding grain and hauling water. After the village comes down with a plague, they visit a witch doctor. He opines that insufficient reparations for the murder committed by Nhamo’s father is the cause. In recompense, 11-year-old Nhamo is to marry a repulsive man.
Nhamo’s kind grandmother gives her a stash of gold nuggets, information about her father’s last location, and directions to Zimbabwe. Nhamo sets off in a boat, on a journey that should only take days. She gets lost and ends up having to survive in first one isolated location, then the next. Eventually, Nhamo makes it across the mined border. She lands at a research station, sick with many different illnesses. They locate her father’s family, although, because her father was both dead and a jerk, it’s not the joyous reunion Nhamo hoped for. She goes to live with them, learns to read, which she loves, and learns much, but finds that her real family is in the research station.
I have mixed feelings about this book. It is HIGHLY descriptive, which is both a strength and a weakness. After a while, I just wanted the author to get on with the plot, rather than meticulously running us through all the actions Nhamo takes to survive when isolated. However, the description did a strong job of painting the scene. I also appreciated that the author described Nhamo’s inner life along with her external one. So, we got to see when Nhamo was achingly lonely, scared, etc.
As someone with a background in anthropology, I found the mix of cultures interesting, too. Nhamo depends on many traditional skills and beliefs to survive after she leaves her village, but it is that very culture that forces her departure. Similarly, we see some of the evils of modern civilization, like areas that have a ton of land mines and foreigners who set dogs on Nhamo just for looking through their window. But, the research station epitomizes the search for the new, and those are the skills and people Nhamo comes to treasure most.
I’d recommend this for late elementary or middle school children looking for a book with a strong female main character. It might especially appeal to those who like adventures and a level of detail often found in narrative non-fiction. In some ways, it reads like a modern Swiss Family Robinson, in that it’s a tale of survival in the wild.