A Girl Named Disaster

By Nancy Farmer

Original Publisher: Orchard Books
Current & Digital Publisher: Scholastic

Reading Level: Ages 8 & Up

Eliot Schrefer writes:

It’s surprising how many of our great books about wilderness survival are also about girls becoming targets as they teeter into womanhood. Like Zia (Island of the Blue Dolphins) or Julie (Julie of the Wolves), A Girl Named Disaster’s Nhamo leaves childhood by leaving civilization. And only with much reluctance: Her Mozambique village has been stricken by cholera, and the healer blames Nhamo’s missing father. But when the only “cure” is for the girl to marry a brute, her grandmother encourages Nhamo to steal a canoe and escape to Zimbabwe. And she does, but only after months in the wilderness.

One thing I adore about this book is how Nhamo’s apparent story of isolation is actually about forming alliances at the margins, with animals or spirits, anything outside of the traditional system that would trap her into marriage. So often, young adult literature features a conspiracy of females as the enemy: the “in” clique, the secret society, the coven. But here Farmer has made becoming a woman—and becoming a member of a sisterhood—a source not of tension but of salvation. After all, it is the instant suspicion of a girl without a father or husband to represent her that forces Nhamo into the wilderness in the first place; her extraordinary journey is prompted by her female-ness, and her survival comes with shifting the way she is different and vulnerable: In the village it was because she was a girl, but in the wilderness it is by being a human among animals. The reader senses, though, that the survival skills Nhamo has acquired will apply equally well to the life she will lead once she returns to human civilization.

It’s hard to read any account of wilderness survival and not muffle it in metaphor, hard to avoid reading Nhamo’s struggles in solitude primarily as a statement on the society she’s escaped. But Farmer recounts the myths of Nhamo’s people with such loving reverence that any easy conclusions—or privileging of human culture over that of Nhamo’s precious baboons—are made muddy. More importantly, by grounding the narrative in the physical details of Nhamo’s time in the wilderness, Farmer allows the natural world to take center stage. In treating the natural environment as something more than just a setting in which to examine human feelings and goals, Farmer elevates and broadens the book.   

She flicked off a few ticks that had brushed onto her dress-cloth. They were large and hungry, probably left behind by antelope. She could see more of them clinging to the grass, waiting for dinner. She found a game trail that meandered until it met a wide grassland divided by a stream. Beyond rose a sizable cliff, topped by trees. She made out the prints of kudu, waterbuck, and duiker, the splayed mark of guinea fowl, the looping trail of a burwa lizard. Nothing dangerous.

Farmer keeps her language accessible (without making it basic or condescending) and yet captures so much of the vivid detail of the natural world in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Look at the ticks—we know their size and their position, but none of the judgments or easy gross-outs we’d expect. Through Nhamo’s eyes, the young reader sees them in terms of their natural life cycle: In just a few words we identify where they’ve come from (“left behind by antelope”), why they’re on the grass (“waiting for dinner”), how much blood they’ve already consumed (“large”) and the scale of their desire for more. It’s a peculiar and powerful kind of empathy, and one that’s not out of a gooey romantic sense of nature. Nhamo’s not rhapsodizing; getting to the bottom of why the ticks are on her dress-cloth has everything to do with her continued survival. For young readers who yearn to be closer to nature, it’s a beautiful broadening of the kinds of creatures that matter, about the fascination of creatures that aren’t piglets and puppies.

Throughout the novel, Farmer expands the range of beings worthy of empathy. Ultimately, that expansion is what saves Nhamo herself—from a suspect subhuman witch, she becomes a full member of human society. That broadening of our moral imaginations, limiting the degree to which other beings can be seen as “other,” shades all of the novel. In the passage above, Nhamo starts by flicking the ticks nonchalantly, then ends by listing creatures unknown to most of her readers. Before reading A Girl Named Disaster, those readers might assume they were monsters from an unknowable continent. But through Nhamo we learn to see them as something different entirely: “Nothing dangerous.”

Eliot Schrefer is the author of Endangered, Glamorous Disasters, and other novels. The winner of the 2013 Green Earth Book Award, Schrefer is a contributor to The Huffington Post and a reviewer for USA Today. He has been profiled in Newsweek, New York magazine, and WWD, among other publications. He lives in New York City.


YPL Finalists That Year:

  • Carolyn Coman for What Jamie Saw
  • Nancy Farmer for A Girl Named Disaster
  • Helen Kim for The Long Season of Rain
  • Han Nolan for Send Me Down a Miracle

YPL Winner That Year: Victor Martinez, Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida

Judges That Year: Lloyd Alexander, Leonard Marcus, Gary Soto, Beatrice Sparks, Joyce Carol Thomas

The Year in Literature: The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman won the Newbery Medal.

More Information:

  • Nancy Farmer was also a Finalist in 2002 for The House of the Scorpion.
  • Before Nancy Farmer became a writer, she was a scientist in Zimbabwe specializing in tsetse fly control. When she gave birth to her first child she had to stop working. “I got very depressed just sitting at home. Even though I adored my baby, I was used to going around having fun, and I wasn't having fun anymore. Then, when Daniel was four, I was reading him a book by Marjorie Forster, and I thought, 'Wow, I can do this!' And I sat down and wrote a short story. That's when I started being a writer.”

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