Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres to read, but there’s no doubt that it’s sometimes hard to recommend to the right book for every reader. Sometimes, much of the enjoyment lies in understanding the background of the time when the story is taking place.
You probably tend to read historical fiction based on the time you’re already interested in (or assigned!) like the American Civil War, or World War II, or on The Oregon Trail. In those cases, you already have a little background information, and you either want to (or have to) learn more.
Still, picking up a book set in a time period you know nothing about can be very rewarding. Sometimes, it can inspire a reader to find out more about that time, or discover more books set during that period. Sometimes, they’re just fun reads, where you can pick up some tidbits of interesting information to stun and amaze your friends! Crossover novels–science fiction where kids travel through time, or mysteries that take place in history, or fantasy worlds that are based on actual historical facts–can be the best place to start a love of history.
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Detectives in Togas, by Henry Winterfeld, is a mystery. It’s also set during the time when Rome ruled the world, and Caesar ruled Rome.
“Caius is a Dumbbell“. Not quite what you expect to see from a group of wealthy Roman boys at school. And yet, there is is, scratched on a wax writing tablet at the front of the classroom. Rufus, Antonius, Mucius, Flavius, Julius, Publius (and Caius, of course) are shocked to see it stuck up on the wall, for anyone to see. But it had to have been one of them who did it. Their tutor, Xantippus, stops the fight that erupts between Caius and Rufus, as words and fists start flying, and Caius claims to recognize Rufus’ handwriting.
Xantippus sends a worried Rufus home with a warning that he will speak with his mother, and sends unrepentant Caius home for starting a fight. He sends the rest of the boys home to think about their actions…and also with an essay, a writing assignment, and studying as punishment for their actions.
The next day, when the boys return, Xantippus is nowhere to be found. Rufus and Caius are also missing, although with the fight the day before, none of the other boys are surprised. What is surprising is finding Xantippus tied up in his small apartment, his belongings destroyed. With no idea what the invaders were searching for, the boys help their tutor clean up his home, then are given a real day off!
On their way to the market though, they see “Caius is a Dumbbell!” scrawled in huge letters on the wall of The Temple of Minerva, right outside Caius’ home…which is also the home of his father, Senator Vinicius, a very important man in Rome. Like Caius, the senator suspects Rufus, and he plans to denounce him.
Crime is more serious in Rome than today’s readers might think, and Rufus is in danger of losing his hands, if not his life, just for being thought guilty. The boys know that their friend is in serious danger, and set out to find and help him.
How is the attack on Xantippus connected? Is the wealthy ex-consul Tellus, who may have had some connection to Rufus’ father, trying to help or hurt the boy? Will Caius help them? Has Rufus disappeared on his own, or is he in real trouble? As the boys find more and more clues to help their friend, they find themselves deeper and deeper in danger. Can they work together to save Rufus? Or will their actions doom him?
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The boys in this book are kids you would want on your side if you were in the middle of a crisis. They’re hard-working, funny and persistent, and they’ll do anything to help a friend. Even though they lived a couple thousand years ago, their friendship and school days are similar to what kids today have.
Henry Winterfeld was born in Germany, where Detectives in Togas was originally published in 1953; it was translated into English and published in the U.S. in 1956. The Mystery of the Roman Ransom was published in 1969 in Germany, and translated in 1971. A third book about the boys was published in Germany in 1976, but has not been translated into English. I’ll read it if it’s ever released over here!
The details of Ancient Rome are fresh, and the information feels very naturally part of the story. All that historical information is just part of the background…and if you happen to learn a few things while you’re reading, so much the better. In fact, I suspect that anyone who finishes Detectives in Togas will want to read the second book about Rufus, Mucius and their friend–The Mystery of the Roman Ransom, where the boys buy Xantippus a slave and Caius is kidnapped. You might also try The Roman Mysteries, by Caroline Lawrence. You’ll be happy you did! (And hey, it might give you a little headstart when you study Ancient Rome in middle school…)