In fifth grade, I was going to be an archaeologist. (British spelling and all.) It didn’t happen, but that goal led to an abiding curiosity about ancient Egypt, mummies, tombs and pharaohs that’s lasted ever since then. You can probably tell that from our Ancient Egypt section (J 932) and our Mummies section (J 393.303) In fact, this past Sunday, the Discovery Channel had an afternoon full of documentaries on Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, Ptolemy, and Arsinoe. There I was in front of the television, still mesmerized by the stories of people who lived and died over 2,000 years ago.
Most of my interest in Ancient Egypt can be tracked back to two books; The Golden Goblet and Mara, Daughter of the Nile, both by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. They made a huge impact on my life (despite the lack of further formal archaeological studies, which could be put down to dislike of flying, camping and dust) and reading choices. Books about the Pharaohs of Egypt, mysterious mummies, and dashing archaeologists are still at the front of my reading wish list.
* * *
The Golden Goblet is about Ranofer, who wants to be a master goldsmith like his father before him, making beautiful jewelry for the Pharaoh and other nobility of Egypt. The death of his father, however, leaves him under the guardianship of his older half-brother Gebu. At first, Ranofer is too wrapped up in his own sadness and sense of outrage at the selfish behavior of his brother to realize that Gebu has more wealth than he should. After he learns that Gebu is a thief, stealing from his father’s friends, Ranofer threatens to expose him. Instead, Gebu yanks him from the goldsmith’s shop and apprentices him to a stone cutter, where Ranofer is expected to labor at cutting and moving stones in an industry where accidents are common, and Ranofer’s hands and talent could be accidentally crushed in an instant.
Ranofer is too tired to do much except work and survive…until he finds a beautiful golden goblet hidden in his brother’s room. The goblet is inscribed with the name of the Pharaoh Thutmose, who died several years earlier. Suddenly, all of Gebu’s strange behavior makes sense–he’s robbing the tombs of the Pharaohs!
Ranofer knows that it’s his duty to report tomb robbers, but who will believe a lowly stone cutter’s apprentice over a wealthy merchant? He sets out with his new friend Hequet to follow his brother and his comrades to find proof to expose their crimes. What follows is a dangerous deception, where Ranofer’s very life hangs in the balance. Will he survive?
Only by reading this book can you find out!
* * *
The second book I read about a year later: Mara, Daughter of the Nile. For slightly older readers, this is a romance as well as a mystery and a story of Ancient Egypt. Mara is a proud and beautiful slave girl. When she is purchased by a handsome stranger and offered her freedom, she knows there is a catch. What she doesn’t know was that she’s about to become a spy.
Because of her gift with languages, Mara is brought into the palace to be an interpreter between a new royal princess and the Pharoah Hatshepsut’s brother Thutmose III. Her new position as a spy is to learn what is happening in the palace, in order to restore Thutmose to the throne. Mara is soon playing her own game though, pitting one side against the other in a desperate bid for her own freedom. Unfortunately for her, her new contact, Sheftu, is honorable and kind…and although they fight like cats and dogs at first, soon Mara starts to fall for him.
Can Mara figure out which side is right, and still manage to salvage a relationship with Sheftu? Just as she thinks things will work out, her duplicity is discovered, and her very life hangs in the balance. Will she survive?
* * *
Eloise Jarvis McGraw was a wonderful writer, bringing her stories to life in many different eras. She was awarded a Newbery Honor Medal three times in three different decades (1953 for Moccasin Trail, 1962 for The Golden Goblet and 1997 for The Moorchild), one of only a few authors to span such a wide range of years. Her writing career spanned over fifty years. An impressive feat!
Both The Golden Goblet and Mara, Daughter of the Nile have a wonderful amount of background material and details about life in ancient Egypt–from the food the Egyptians ate to the games they played to the events that influenced their lives. Both books pull the reader into this dusty and brilliant world, filled with characters larger than life. I’d highly recommend both books to anyone interested in Egypt, or to anyone who wants to encourage a budding archaeologist. Who needs Indiana Jones? (Actually, I do. But really, that’s a whole different media.) These books might even lead the reader into a search for more information on Hatshepsut, Thutmose and other famous Egyptians.
There have been several great books about Egypt and archaeologists since these two books were published. (The Golden Goblet in 1961 and Mara, Daughter of the Nile in 1953.) If you’d like some other Egyptology suggestions, please come in and ask at the Youth Services Desk. It might even be the subject of a future booklist!