CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 12 . . . . February 18, 2000
I raised the cup to my lips and tasted no bitterness on the rim. My eyes closed as I took the first sip, as if savoring such an excellent taste, but really my thought was, O Isis, I am afraid. But does Isis hear a girl's prayer? My heart raced as I drank, my stomach turned with nervousness, or was it from a fearsome death beginning in me? (p.7)The above excerpt gives the reader a hint of the turbulent and dangerous life led by Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. So terrible was it that she was even at risk from her own father and sisters. Young teens get a chance to peek into what may have been the thoughts of the 12-year-old as Egyptian politics was turned on its head and Rome emerged as the leading power of the ancient world.
Kristiana Gregory has done a masterful job of capturing this significant time in Cleopatra's life when the queen was the same age as the readers. Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy, has caused starvation by levying unfair taxes and mismanaging the royal treasury. The masses rise against him, and he flees Egypt for safety with his enemy, the mighty Roman Empire, led by Julius Caesar. This unusual alliance troubles Cleopatra, but she is soon forced to join him because her sister, Tryphaena, seizes the throne in their father's absence. The events that follow are complicated, brutal and bloody, as were the events at the time. Cleopatra records her observations, her fears and her dreams, and all are explained within the context of what is known about Egyptian society. The historical events are discussed as if Cleopatra were explaining or justifying them to herself. Cleopatra's education, her friends and her emerging analysis of politics are presented in diary entries. Gregory has Cleopatra describe royal life, the situation of slaves and the common riff-raff of the street to give the reader the broadest possible view of the period.
Following the fictionalized diary are nearly 50 pages of factual information about Cleopatra, her family, Caesar and Marc Antony. Her family tree and the fate of her dynasty are recorded. A large number of annotated pictures, maps, diagrams and drawings complete the non-fiction side of the book. The complicated events of the time are clearly outlined. Passages such as the one that follows will leave the young reader curious to learn more about archeology and ancient history.
Perhaps the most celebrated discovery was in 1947, when a young Bedouin shepherd wandered into a cave near the Dead Sea in Jordan. There, he found broken jars with leather scrolls written in Aramaic and Hebrew, Biblical manuscripts dating from more than one thousand years earlier than any previously found. These documents and others from nearby caves are thought to have been a hidden library used sometime between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100 by a Jewish sect.The trend to historical fiction is to the benefit of young readers who are informed at the same time they are entertained. Lucky kids.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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