Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Roman Mysteries

The Roman Mysteries is a mystery/adventure series set in 79 A.D. by British author, Caroline Lawrence. They are best read in order; book one is Thieves Of Ostia.

The Plot: Rome for Middle School.

The Good: These books are a mix of mystery, action, adventure and history.

The four main characters are ages 8 to 12 and are a multicultural mix: Flavia is a middle class Roman; Nubia is African, and in Book 1 is Flavia's slave; Jonathan, the next door neighbor, is Jewish; and finally there is the homeless boy, Lupus. Flavia frees Nubia, and the four have adventures and solve mysteries, and travel from Rome to Pompeii, meeting anyone and everyone from Pliny to assassins.

The kids take action; they do things, rather than having adults do things for them. They ask questions, get in trouble, and work things out.

As far as I can tell, Lawrence has done a superb job of keeping these books correct historically. The kids do act older than they seem; I keep picturing them as older than they are. It works, tho, because of historical and cultural differences. Kids back then were older than today; for example, Miriam, Jonathan's sister, is only 14 but is engaged to an "old" man in his 30s. So it makes sense that these kids who are 8 to 12 are acting more like they are 12 to 15.

In keeping with the realities of the time period depicted, the books contain violence. Perhaps most upsetting is the story of Lupus, fully told in The Dolphins of Laurentum. As a 6 year old, he witnessed a murder; to prevent him from telling, his tongue was cut out. As an adult with a godson who are six, I find this quite disturbing. Yet I know that as a kid, I would have been thrilled with the action, the adventure, that the kids were doing this and taking risks and making it through and being taken seriously.

I love history and am fascinated by the time period Lawrence has chosen. The Roman Empire is at its peak, and the kids represent the peoples of Rome: those with and without money, those conquered and conquering. It's matter of fact and real. For example, there are slaves. Nubia is a slave, stolen from her home and family. Nubia happens to be from Africa; other slaves encountered by the children, as cooks and tutors, include Greek slaves. It's a fact of Roman life, softened by Flavia's freeing Nubia and Nubia being treated as an equal by Flavia, her friends, and her family.

It's also quite interesting to see the depiction of the early Church. Jonathan and his family are Jewish, exiled from Jerusalem. They are also Christians; and while this isn't front and center, it -- like Nubia's lost homeland, and Lupus's sad past -- every now and then the Early Church comes to the forefront.

The series is being made into a TV show. I cannot wait for it to be shown in the US. According to the author website, changes include making Lupus mute rather than without a tongue, a change I imagine is being made for the obvious reasons (no special effects needed), plus perhaps to soften the violence; and the kids will be about 3 years older. Since I view them as acting older than their age (and again, view this as historically accurate) I can understand why they would want to use older actors. For example, it's one thing to read about the romances of 14 year old Miriam, but I'd be much more comfortable with a TV version of Miriam being in her late teens. Comments from other readers?

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