For years now, my writing-group friend Mordena has been urging us all to read Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. And now I’ve actually done so. (Special points for me! And probably a big surprise for Mordena.)
And I liked the book. Of course, it was a Newbery Honor Book in the fantasy/science-fiction genre, so I should like it or there’s something seriously wrong with the system.
I think what makes The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm so refreshingly original is its setting: Zimbabwe in the year 2194, precisely two centuries after the book was first published. Farmer thus combines three ways of taking Americans to an unfamiliar place: a foreign country, a technologically advanced future, and a world with fantastic elements (in this case, ancestral spirits). Her novel stands alongside the previous American children’s books set in a futuristic sub-Saharan Africa, which were... Well, you get the picture.
The book has two separate trios of protagonists:
- siblings Tendai (aged 13), Rita (11), and Kuda (4). Chafing against the boundaries set by their powerful, protective father, they set off on what they expect will be a one-day scout trip--and end up being kidnapped.
- detectives named the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. Mutants born after plutonium contamination, they respectively have enhanced hearing, sight, and sensitivity (both of touch and of emotion). But their powers also make them vulnerable misfits.
The plot humps along, which produces a lot of action but not necessarily a lot of progress. The children are held captive by strict but not totally evil people who show us something about Zimbabwean society in the future (and today). After weeks or months of captivity, the kids realize that they’re in even greater danger than they thought and manage a breathless escape. Meanwhile, the detectives have had a few lucky breaks and figured out where the kids are, arriving only hours or minutes after those kids have moved on. Whereupon the children are kidnapped again.
And this happens not just once but three times.
Among the siblings, eldest brother Tendai does the most growing up. That makes sense since he starts on the verge of adolescence. Farmer narrates many scenes from his point of view. The two younger siblings are what E. M. Forster called “flat” characters--interesting in their quirks but essentially unchanging.
I expected more equalized attention for the detectives since they’re introduced as a trio. However, it quickly becomes clear that the Arm is the leader of the group. He has the most interesting capacities, and he undergoes the most change over the course of the book. The Ear contributes to the hunt but remains much the same, and the Eye does rather little, actually. Thus, of the detectives, only the Arm has his own arc.