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Despite her antics, Nancy did well at North High in Phoenix and won a scholarship to Reed. “In those days the college had a wild card quota for eccentric students who didn’t have a hope of getting in anywhere else,” she quips. Apparently, the admission committee was so entertained by a “blistering” reference written by one of her teachers that they accepted her.
She struggled to find her place at Reed. “Being at college was not a holiday,” she recalls. With little money for expenses, she worked at a Japanese vegetable stand; when her hair began to fall out from a lack of protein, she bought horsemeat from a slaughterhouse. It didn’t help that she chose the wrong field of study. “I should have been a scientist. Instead, I took lit courses, thinking it would teach me to write.”
Then she discovered professor Lloyd Reynolds [English and Art, 1929-69]. “I took every class he taught—calligraphy, art, creative writing, Zen Buddhism. He was the only professor who taught me anything. Possibly because I neglected everything else to listen to him”—or possibly, she confesses, because she stayed up most nights playing poker with friends.
After graduating with a degree in general literature, Nancy traveled to India with the Peace Corps, then returned to the United States to pursue a longstanding fascination with insects in the entomology department at UC Berkeley. In 1971, she moved to Africa to work as an entomologist in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Her first job was collecting solfugits—“big, ugly spidery things”—on a busy airstrip. “You’d see a shadow pass overhead,” she remembers, “then you’d run like hell for the bushes!”
Ever the observer—she describes herself as “fading into the wall paper”—she spent the next 17 years monitoring water weeds, helping control tsetse fly, and listening to stories. In Africa, she honed her sense of humor. “African humor is low key. They skip the straight gag—stringing you out for a long time, instead.” A charismatic lab technician in Mozambique told her many of the outlandish tales that ended up in The Ear, the Eye and the Arm.
In 1978, she met and married her husband, Harold Farmer, a Namibian-born writer who taught English at the University of Zimbabwe. She quit her job following the birth of her son and shortly thereafter began writing children’s books. Hungry for publication in the United States, she submitted a story to the Writers of the Future Contest in 1987 and won the grand prize. With the award money, she and her family moved back to California. Nancy worked in the genetics department at Stanford University—deforming fruit flies and helping them mate—until she could no longer bring herself to be a “fruit fly pimp.” On the day she quit her boss refused to write her a reference. Devastated, she came home to discover a letter from the National Endowment for the Arts awarding her a grant. She has been a full-time writer ever since.
Thanks to her scientific training, her novels are impeccably researched, with every fact checked. In A Girl Named Disaster, for instance, she consulted over 400 books and newspapers to ensure the accuracy of the Zimbabwean customs, legends, and religion. Her trilogy The Sea of Trolls includes a bibliography and appendix on Norse mythology. “I make stuff up only when there is nothing to go on,” she says. “Everything else is built on facts.”
Never cartoons, her characters encompass the full range of human feelings and foibles—that goes for villains, too. In The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, Nancy introduces a character named the She Elephant, who rules over Dead Man’s Vlei, a toxic-waste dump where her captives mine trash. As big as an armchair with ham-like hands, the She Elephant steals and sells children, but also mothers them with mouth-watering meals. Under the right circumstances, even her most notorious bad guys can be charming or kind.
In addition to the deep research and the humor, it is perhaps Nancy’s theme of self-reliance that young readers find most compelling. She writes of heroes and heroines who compete against all odds—and triumph. She believes that kids should be taught to take care of themselves. She’s adamant that authors, as well as parents and teachers, have a duty to teach self-reliance: “Schools in the United States train kids to be weak and I don’t like it. Most Americans haven’t seen what it’s like to live in other places where life is much harder. We must teach kids not to fold—to fight and never give up.”
Megan Holden is a Portland writer.
Nancy Farmer’s Worlds
The Ear, the Eye and the Arm (1994) chronicles the kidnapping and eventual escape of three kids who encounter a ragtag assortment of criminals living in the underbelly of Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2194.
A Girl Named Disaster (1996) follows a Shona tribal girl who battles drowning, starvation, and wild animals, only to meet an even worse fate—arranged marriage.
The House of Scorpion (2002) is a coming of age story about a boy who refuses to endure the grasp of his power-hungry family and his fate as a clone. Winner of the National Book Award.
The Sea of Trolls (2004) trilogy includes The Land of Silver Apples (2006) and The Islands of the Blessed (2009). Layered with Norse mythology and ancient European history, the books tell of the quests of an apprentice bard and a Viking warrior maiden.
From The Ear, the Eye and the Arm:
“Tendai saw—and almost fell, so great was his terror—that chunks of the ground that he took for trash stood up. They moved toward him from all sides. Even down in the hollow where they had just hidden, a lump detached itself and crept up the side. ‘Mama! Mama!’ Kuda screamed. Tendai turned desperately, trying to find an opening, but the creatures were all around. They moved toward him with a shambling gait. They had eyes—They were people. Tendai watched them slowly turn from nameless horrors to human beings like himself. ‘It’s all right, Kuda,’ he whispered. ‘They’re like us.’”
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