October 04, 2004

Mara Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

One of the first civilizations my daughter and I are learning about while homeschooling world history is Ancient Egypt. It's an interesting culture, there are lots of cool artifacts and monuments left by them to study and it's useful for teaching how to study a civilization in terms of government, social issues, geography, the role of religion and mythology, etc. We came to the conclusion that the Egyptians were a very visually-oriented people, extremely pragmatic in their thinking and not inward-directed or concerned about abstract concepts or philosophical questions. They developed extensive canal irrigation and water control systems, indoor plumbing, built the pyramids and carried on extensive trade, all with a clumsy writing system that left most people illiterate and, compared to the Greeks, an unsophisticated system of mathematics.

As an educational tool, historical fiction is useful for making the reality of the times come alive in human terms. Temples that we see as fascinating archeological artifacts were real places with sights and smells and sounds that are hard to imagine unless you are given a story to place them in. So we are reading some fiction as a way to make the history come alive for my daughter.

Mara is the first of these novels. It's set in the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh in Egyptian history. Mara is a slave girl, bought by one of the Queen's advisors to use as a spy in the inner chambers of Thutmose III, the Queen's heir. Thutmose has been affianced to a Syrian princess who speaks only Babylonian and since Mara has been owned by a scribe she is fluent in that language. Her role is to translate for the princess when she speaks with Thutmose and report back to the Queen's advisor on anything amiss that she may hear. The conflict comes when she inadvertently falls in love with a young lord loyal to Thutmose who is involved in a plot to depose the Queen and put Thutmose in his rightful place on the throne. Her personal loyalties lie with Thutmose, but her owner will kill her if she betrays the Queen.

It's a good story, well told. The general background history is believable though I went back and read a bit on the reign of the Hatshepsut and Thutmose III and had to point out to my daughter repeatedly where the history ended and the fiction began. McGraw played a bit fast and loose with reality to build the tension in the story, which is ok for fiction as long as the reader understands the difference. It did serve to bring an ancient culture to life, particularly in the daily life of the temples and the common people.

Posted by Deb English at October 4, 2004 09:03 PM