Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Ear, the Eye and the Arm

Go To

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.
  • Afrofuturism: The book is set in Zimbabwe in the year 2194.
  • 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 serves community service for her extortion plot, but although she saved the day, the She Elephant still has to serve some jail time for her crimes.
  • Blatant Lies: Suspecting that the detectives don't have suitable formal wear, mother gives them each a dashiki; she says that the dashikis were given to the General as a gift, and he never accepts gifts to avoid the appearance of taking bribes. The detectives note how unlikely it is that the general was gifted three dashikis that fit the detectives perfectly, including one with matching earmuffs, but are grateful nonetheless.
  • 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 as antiques 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. Made even worse by the fact that she didn't know she was stealing; she ate because she was hungry, and didn't realize she had to ask.
  • 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.
    • The Masks, however, remain The Dreaded themselves, despite the general's best efforts. Their Establishing Character Moment is the bombing of a supermarket, and their motives (assuming they have any) remain a mystery. By the time we find out who they really are, and whom they serve, it's not at all hard to believe.
  • 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.
    • For most of the book, the She Elephant is also perfectly happy to sell the children to the Masks. When she finds out their true intentions, and when they alter the deal for good measure, she throws down.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Mellower. Tendai ends up feeling vaguely guilty for not knowing the real name of the person who essentially raised them; Kuda, on the other hand insists that the Mellower doesn't have a name.
  • 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."
  • Gilded Cage: How Tendai, Rita, and Kuda view their mansion. Despite having every comfort, they resent the fact that they're rarely allowed to leave.
  • 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: Deconstructed 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. A character who left the modern world to live in Resthaven acknowledges both the good and bad aspects, and that you can't have one without the other.
  • 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.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • The Mellower's mother. She hides the fact that she has Matsika's children in the hopes that he will eventually offer a reward that she can collect. This delay gives the She Elephant time to track them down, re-kidnap them, and sell them to the Masks, which almost results in their death by torture. Her consequence? 1000 hours of community service.
    • Averted by the She Elephant, who ends up doing some jail time for her crimes despite her eventual Heel–Face Turn.
  • 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.
  • Made a Slave: The children are temporarily forced to mine plastic in the Dead Man's Vlei while the She Elephant arranges to sell them into more permanent slavery.
  • 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 Ear, the Eye and the Arm are from a village whose water source was tainted with radiation; their pregnant mothers drank the water, leading to their unique abilities.
    • The people of the Dead Man's Vlei develop into a sort of shambling hive mind due to prolonged exposure to the toxic environment.
  • Mirroring Factions:
    • Although the Gondwannans are Zimbabwe's historical enemies and blamed for everything from locusts to headaches, Tendai surmises that they probably carry on boring lives exactly the same as the Zimbabweans. Horribly subverted when it turns out that they actually carry out Human Sacrifice by way of Cold-Blooded Torture in order to appease their Eldritch Abomination gods.
    • A more straight example seems to be the opposing tribe in Resthaven, who engage in fist-fights with Tendai's group as a coming of age rite but are presumably virtually identical to Garikayi's tribe.
  • Mistaken for Dying: After escaping Resthaven Rita falls seriously ill and Tendai fears for her life, knowing she could have caught any number of dangerous diseases that have been eradicated in 2194. It turns out she did catch an extinct disease — Chicken Pox.
  • My Beloved Smother: The Mellower's mother.
  • Noble Savage: Resthaven is a cultural preserve where a select few live the life of pre-colonial Africans. Serves as a deconstruction as the initially idyllic lifestyle is shown to be full of sexism, superstition, and child murder; it's explicitly stated such a culture can only exist as a whole and you can't pick and choose only the "good" parts..
  • 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.
  • Normal Fish in a Tiny Pond: Tendai doesn't enjoy his martial arts training and isn't particularly good at it, but he's easily the best fighter out of the youth in Resthaven.
  • 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.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Tendai and his siblings are the children of a high-ranking government official who keeps them mostly confined to their house to protect them from his many enemies. When they finally leave, they are ill-equipped to deal with the real world.
  • 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.
  • Star Scraper: The Mile-High Macllwaine, which lives up to it's name. Stated to be less of a building and more of a self-contained, vertical city within the larger Harare metroplex.
  • 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.
  • The Wall Around the World: In Zimbabwe in 2194, Resthaven is a large preserve that has been set aside where a select few live in the Good Old Ways of pre-colonial Africa. It's large enough to hold at least a couple villages with their livestock and agriculture, and surrounded by an enormous wall to block out the sights and sounds of the modern world, mirrored on the inside to give the impression of going on forever. The residents call the wall "the edge of the world" and aren't even curious what's on the other side, knowing it only as Mwari's country.
  • "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. It's also their practice to kill one of the babies if twins are born.
    • Another version of this crops up at the climax. The mouth of the Big-Head Mask is lined with very small teeth, and the children are to be tortured to death.
  • Wretched Hive: The Cow's Guts slum, where the detectives live and base their business.