A Girl Named Disaster Characters
by Nancy Farmer

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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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Nhamo is a remarkable character. The first unusual characteristic she exhibits is a gift for detailed observation. She can recognize the footprints of everyone in the village and she has learned a great deal about the local flora and fauna merely by watching them closely. Nhamo uses quiet observation as a form of self-discipline:

Nhamo's spirit had to be kept very busy to keep her from losing her temper.

The other girls in the village never felt restless. Nhamo was like a pot of boiling water. "I want... I want...," she whispered to herself, but she didn't know what she wanted and so she had no idea how to find it.

Later the reader learns that Nhamo is very much like her late mother—intelligent, imaginative, curious, and eager for knowledge. These traits also encourage close observation. Life has developed other traits in Nhamo as well, such as independence, strength, and resourcefulness. These are the qualities that enable her to survive her long journey. The time she has invested in close observation of the world around her proves invaluable in her travels.

Survival is the main theme of the novel, and a resourceful hero or heroine is vital to a tale of survival. Nhamo is equipped to survive her ordeals because of her cultural training, her difficult childhood, and her personal qualities. The survival theme reverberates throughout the book at many levels. The most obvious level is physical survival. Nhamo faces many dangers from predators, land mines, illness, poisonous plants and insects, starvation, accident, and weather changes. Because she has been raised in a traditional Shona village, she knows how to forage, how to prepare simple foods, and how to make basic tools. When she needs to develop a new skill, such as rowing or hunting or making a boat, she calls upon her determination, resourcefulness, and the bits of knowledge she has picked up from watching others do these things. She encounters endless setbacks in her quest, yet she always perseveres. At other levels, this is also a tale of emotional, psychological, and spiritual survival.

At the beginning of the novel, Nhamo is already a survivor of emotional neglect and physical abuse from her maternal relatives, especially from Aunt Chipo, who resents Nhamo's very existence. However, there are times during Nhamo's adventurous journey when her emotional survival seems a shakier prospect than her physical survival. Her intense need for companionship is a point of vulnerability throughout the book, leading her into an unhealthy dependence on the baboons and later on Dr. Masuku, the Matabele scientist at Efifi. Similarly, Nhamo's psychological survival seems doubtful on occasion, particularly when her beloved magazine picture is destroyed and when she kills the dog. There is little left of her psychic stability when she wanders into the Efifi science compound.

Nhamo's spiritual survival, on the other hand, seldom seems at risk. Her spirit is her one true source of strength, rebounding time and again from blows that should shatter it. She draws strength from her own spirit and from the spirit realm, which is completely real to her. Her conversations with the spirits of her mother, Crocodile Guts, and the njuzu, or water spirits, revitalize her. At her lowest points, spiritual guidance or assistance always arrives in the nick of time, restoring her will to live.

Other themes surface through Nhamo's relationships with her relatives. Nhamo's grandmother, or Ambuya in the Shona tongue, and Aunt Chipo are particularly interesting character studies. In her younger days, Nhamo's maternal grandmother lived beyond the village in a town in Zimbabwe, so she has a store of worldly wisdom and the good sense to realize it would not be appreciated in the village. As an elder, Ambuya deserves respect, but the simmering resentment between her and her second daughter, Aunt Chipo, occasionally boils over. Nhamo is the focus of that resentment. Ambuya does not dare show open affection for her favorite...

(The entire section is 1,933 words.)