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Literature / The Ear, the Eye and the Arm

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A 1995 Newbery Honor Book, The Ear, the Eye and the Armnote  is a novel by Nancy Farmer set in Zimbabwe 200 years in the future.

Tendai and his siblings Rita and Kuda have lived a sheltered life and have a strained relationship with their father, the renowned General Matsika. Thus, with the aid of their caretaker, the Mellower, they sneak out of the house...and into a whole lot of trouble, getting themselves kidnapped. Meanwhile, the Matsika parents are frantic with worry, so the Mellower suggests hiring some detectives he has heard of - the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. As the Matsika children struggle to survive, the detectives race to find them before it's too late.

Most notable for its heavy exploration of African myths and traditions, something that normally never appears in Western fiction.


This book provides examples of:

  • Abandon the Disabled: Trashman was abandoned by his mother because of his profound intellectual disability. The people of Resthaven have given him shelter, but still keep him at arm's length, believing that he might attract malevolent spirits.
  • Adult Fear: The notion of your children being kidnapped after they convince you to let them do a small expedition for homework. Unsurprisingly, General Matsika is frantic when he realizes his kids are gone.
  • Afrofuturism: The book's setting.
  • All Myths Are True: The ancient African myths are very real and drive a lot of the story.
  • All There in the Manual: Several of the myths, historic figures/events, and elements of modern (i.e. 1990s) African life are discussed further in a short appendix and glossary.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Myanda. She's married to one of Resthaven's elders, but they have no children, and she names Sekai after a former "girlfriend" from when she lived on the outside. (She's also very fond of her husband's other wife, Chipo, who is Sekai's mother, but that may be more due to Big Sister Instinct.)
  • Ancient Africa: Resthaven. In the middle of the futuristic Zimbabwe, this is a sacred country where the old ways are preservednote  - "the spiritual heart of Africa." Even airplanes aren't allowed to fly overhead, and the people who live inside of it have only the vaguest notion of the outside world - most of them.
    • The historical kingdoms of Great Zimbabwe (ca. 1200-1450) and Mutapa (ca. 1450-1750 CE), and one of the rulers of the latter, also feature prominently as the plot progresses. The ruler's name is never specified; he's referred to as "Monomatapa," but that's actually his title.
  • And I Must Scream: Happens to Arm near the end of the book.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The detectives pull this in Resthaven. Arm also attempts to pull this at the book's climax, but that doesn't work out. Instead, it's the She Elephant who ends up breaking the power of the Masks—literally, over her knee.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The kids are saved from becoming a sacrifice, the family soothsayer's mother is put in jail for her extortion plot, but although she saved the day, the She Elephant still has to serve some jail time for her crimes.
  • Blessed with Suck:
    • Arm's telepathy grows in strength as the book progresses, making him more sensitive to what other people are feeling nearby, and thus making it harder for him to function around other people. Luckily for him, he loses his telepathy due to what the Gondwannan gods do to him.
    • Eye and Ear have similar issues with their own abilities. In addition to typical Sensory Overload and the disfiguring nature of their mutations, Eye is treated to a perpetual Gross Up Closeup of everything around him (and sunlight isn't his favorite thing either), while Ear's eponymous attributes are extremely delicate: at one point he suffers an excrutiating tear when he unfurls them in extreme winds.
  • Butt-Dialing Mordor: Psychic powers and eldritch abominations make a bad combination.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: For Tendai.
  • Commonplace Rare: Plastics. Nobody really misses them, but plastic artifacts can be quite valuable to the right buyer.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Rita, when she wants to be. It gets her into trouble a lot.
    • The narration itself tends toward the bone-dry at times, although it's pretty understated compared to Rita.
  • Decade Dissonance: In 2194 there is Resthaven, which is an independent country with people who live their life in the Good Old Ways.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: When Rita steals some food while the siblings are in Resthaven, guess what her punishment is? They heat peanuts with coals and use them to burn her chest. Ouch.
  • The Dreaded: Matsika. As security chief of Zimbabwe, he brought an end to the chaos caused by the great gang wars through sheer ruthlessness. Over a decade later, just mentioning his name is enough to make the surviving lesser criminals take flight.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Gondwannan gods are supposedly these.
  • Energy Weapon: Laser guns are illegal weapons in the future, used solely by criminals (and those with diplomatic immunity). In a subversion of most fictional lasers, a character actually does get temporarily blinded by looking at one.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Rita mentions that despite being their captor, at least She-Elephant made sure that the kids had enough to eat (and despite where she lives, she's quite the cook). Whereas in Resthaven, Rita gets burned with peanuts for taking a bit of food for herself.
  • Fish out of Water: Tendai and his siblings, having no clue how to adapt to life outside their house.
  • Flying Car: It's the future, folks. Flying vehicles are everywhere.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: An algae described as "pond scum" which is "pressed into the shape of hot dogs, etc."
  • Good Is Not Nice: First and foremost, General Matsika, but also Myanda (who is herself a former criminal), as well as the mhondoro spirit who possesses Arm near the book's climax. Averted with the detectives themselves, who are surprisingly soft-hearted compared to their Western counterparts—but then again, before the Matsikas came along, a lot of their cases involved "sneaky husbands."
  • Good Old Ways: Inverted and somewhat played straight with Resthaven. It's a natural preserve of pristine beauty, and it's a very good place to live - if you're a man. If you're a girl, you can look forward to polygamy and drudgery for the rest of your life, and if twins are born, one of the twins will be killed. Yes, probably the girl. Also, understandably, when the kids end up there, they want to head home to their old life.
  • Happily Adopted: Sekai, in the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The She-Elephant just wanted someone to respect her.
  • Hive Mind: The mutant inhabitants of Dead Man's Vlei are hinted to be this. They don't like outsiders.
  • Honor Before Reason: Because Resthaven is deep-rooted in tradition, they don't just call the authorities to let them know kidnapped children are with them. The kids even lampshade that surely someone has come looking for them.
  • Humans Are White: Averted. There are three distinct ethnic groups — Black, Brownnote , and White. Most of the named characters are Black, but Eye is Brown, and the Mellower, Knife, and Ear are White.
  • I Am Very British: The Mellower's mother, a.k.a. Mrs. Horsepool-Worthingham.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: Played straight, although the plot comes very close to averting this on a few occasions.
  • Lightning Gun: The Soul Stealers.
  • Lovecraftian Superpower: Downplayed in the titular characters, but their powers are derived from physical mutations, and their appearances are very unsettling to others. Eye's eyes are bulbous and protruding, Ear's ears are huge and mobile (to the point where he can fold them to focus on a point like an animal's ears or curl them up for storage), Arm's namesakes are of the Creepy Long variety with (slightly adhesive) Fingers and legs to match.
  • Ludd Was Right: This is one of the main viewpoints of the residents of Resthaven.
  • Manchild: Trashman is an example of this. Kuda is the only one who can (supposedly) understand him. The Mellower has elements of this, too.
  • Maniac Monkeys: The Blue Monkey, a genetically engineered Talking Animal. He's a jerk.
  • The Men First: Implied that this is part of General Matsika's professional standards. By the end, Tendai develops similar beliefs.
  • Mutants: The source of Eye, Ear, and Arm's abilities, and the people of the Dead Man's Vlei.
  • My Beloved Smother: The Mellower's mother.
  • Noble Savage: Resthaven again, deconstructed. See Good Old Ways.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: She-Elephant does pull a Heel–Face Turn when realizing the children are going to be sacrificed. The thing is that she kidnapped them in the first place, which set the whole plot into motion. Thus, she is sentenced to some jail time because the father is definitely pressing charges for endangering his children.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The "decorations" at the Masks' well as the eyes of the Big-Head Mask. It's never stated clearly how a mask's eyes can "open," or show hunger as a sacrifice is prepared—but then again, it may be better left unspecified.
  • Psychic Powers: The Mellower has a mild case, but Arm fell out of that particular tree and hit every branch on the way down. He loses some of them at the end, but he's not entirely ungrateful. See Blessed with Suck, as well as...
  • Reactive Continuous Scream: Arm and Sekai accidentally get into a psychic version of this at one point. It nearly breaks them both.
  • Religion of Evil: The Masks.
  • Shown Their Work: The depictions of African traditional culture and mythology are very thorough.
  • Spanner in the Works: The Masks did not count on She-Elephant's Heel–Face Turn.
  • Stepford Smiler: The Mellower, still unable to get over his abusive My Beloved Smother.
  • Stock "Yuck!": Parsnips, apparently.
  • Super Senses: Eye and Ear each have one super sense. Go on, guess what they are.
  • Theme Naming: This trope feels the love. The three detectives, the Mellower, the She-Elephant, Knife and Fist, Trashman...
  • Translation Convention: Most of the characters speak chiShona unless otherwise specified. At one point, Tendai finds an antique glass bottle with English labeling, and has to work a little to translate it.
    • Many key cultural terms (most prominently the mhondoro) are left untranslated—along with loanwords from Afrikaans, Portuguese, and a few other languages to keep things interesting.
  • Trash of the Titans: The Dead Man's Vlei — an abandoned toxic waste dump — is spacious enough to house an entire colony of scavengers, and so deep that slaves mine for salvage.
  • Urban Hellscape: Toxic slums, borderline-Privately Owned Society, food shortages... an excellent example from the trope's heyday in the mid-90s.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: General Matsika starts out as part of this for all his children (especially with Tendai). As you might guess, it doesn't work out very well for him.
  • Witch Hunt: In Resthaven, after the twins are born. A very literal and very unpleasant example—even though the ancestor spirit who possesses the nganga prevents him from framing Tendai as he was planning to do. Instead, the "evidence" points to Myanda, whose fate is left unspecified.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Touches on all the characters, even the minor ones.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Most of the inhabitants of Resthaven, as long as it's a girl.
    • Another version of this crops up at the climax. The mouth of the Big-Head Mask is lined with very small teeth.
  • Wretched Hive: The Cow's Guts slum, where the detectives live and base their business.


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