Monday, April 24, 2006

Middle Grade Fiction: The Roman Mysteries

My 11-year old son, Jamie, was assigned to read a mystery book and an historical fiction book for his 6th grade Reading class. Browsing the shelves of the library, we came across a single series that met both requirements, and we discovered a new household favorite.

Imagine if Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys traveled back in time to Ancient Rome, and you have a sense of
Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries series. The books succeed on two levels. They are fast-paced, suspenseful mysteries that keep you turning the pages way past bedtime, as well as fascinating and accurate accounts of life in ancient Rome.

The first book, The Thieves of Ostia, takes place in 79 AD in the Roman port city of Ostia. Twelve-year old Flavia, the daughter of a sea captain, meets her three new friends in this book: Jonathan, son of a Jewish doctor; Nubia, an African slave girl rescued by Flavia; and Lupus, a mute beggar boy. Yes, it seems like an unlikely group of friends, but it works. Lawrence makes the characters seem real and worthy of our attention.

Like most young sleuths of fiction, the four children encounter new mysteries to solve in each book, from determining who is killing neighborhood dogs in the first book to tracking down kidnappers and missing children in The Pirates of Pompeii to finding the source of a plague in The Enemies of Jupiter.

While the mysteries are exciting, it's just as compelling to read about the children's daily lives. Woven into the books are many details of food, clothing, architecture, and culture. In book #2, Secrets of Vesuvius, we experience the famous volcanic eruption with the children; in The Gladiators of Capua, we witness the games and shows of the new Colosseum. The books also offer a broadening world view as they deal with issues like slavery and religious tolerance.

Lawrence's books have been acclaimed for their accurate historical portrayal. In some cases, this means dealing with issues that are violent or otherwise distasteful to our modern sensibilities, like the realities of slavery or the gory fate of many of the participants at the Colosseum. To counter these sometimes gruesome details, the main characters tend to react in ways that we would today - sickened by mistreatment of slaves or the "games" at the Coliseum, for instance. Some critics have complained that the main characters' actions (and, indeed, their unique friendship) mars the historical accuracy, but I like the way Lawrence deals with the unsavory aspects of the time by providing admirable heroes and heroines that modern kids can relate to and respect.

When we go to the library, Jamie immediately heads to the L's to see if any of Lawrence's books are available (they're often all checked out). He and I have both enjoyed reading this unique series, and Jamie is very excited about studying Ancient Rome in Social Studies now.