Friday, September 23, 2011

An Obsession with Antiquities

Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter plunged me right back into my childhood obsession with all things Egyptian. Where I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, part of the public library building also served as a museum. In it, there was an adult mummy and a baby mummy, and you had to go through a secret passageway to get to them. Every time I went to the library, I visited this exhibit. Nothing ever changed about it, but I had to see it every chance I got. It was like stepping back in time and imagining what the ancient Egyptians’ lives were like, what they saw and wore and did as part of their daily routine.

When I was a teenager, the contents of King Tutankhamun’s tomb went on tour, and our family traveled to Chicago to see it. That cemented my obsession with Egypt. I could get a sense of how King Tut lived from the things he was buried with in death. But Shecter’s research for Cleopatra’s Moon goes further; it brings alive the smells, tastes and textures of the time. She includes the spices they used in cooking and the perfumes and fabrics they wore, the games the royal children played, and Queen Cleopatra’s attitudes of acceptance and tolerance toward people of all classes and faiths. As a ruler, she earned the respect of her people, and Shecter gives us a strong sense of why she deserved it.

And then, with that full and lively setting, Shecter weaves her tale of intrigue anchored entirely in fact—the fight for Egypt among the Roman elite—Marc Antony, Cleopatra’s husband after Julius Caesar, and Octavianus, whom Caesar had named as his successor.

When most of us think of Queen Cleopatra, we likely picture a woman resembling Elizabeth Taylor in all her beauty and sensuality. We rarely (if ever) think of Queen Cleopatra as the mother of four children. But only one of her children survived to adulthood, and that was Cleopatra Selene, forced to leave her beloved Egypt after her mother’s death (by suicide) and go to the home of her enemy, Octavianus, in Rome. How will she keep her brothers safe? Should she pursue an alliance based on love or power? How will she reclaim her homeland? What would her mother have done? These universal questions of adolescence (well maybe not the reclaiming her homeland part) bring Cleopatra Selene’s experiences home to us as readers, even though her circumstances are extraordinary.

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