Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reading Through History: Pharaoh's Daughter by Julius Lester (2000)

Pharaoh's Daughter is a retelling of the childhood of Moses (whom Lester calls Mosis for reasons explained in the author's note.) In this version, Moses is the grandson of Ramses III (Ramesses) and he has an older sister, Almah, who is taken from his Hebrew (or Haribu) home along with him and becomes a special object of Pharaoh's affections. The story begins with Moses confessing to a murder, then backtracks to explain how it all came about.

This novel was written during the author's personal conversion from Christianity to Judaism. Since the story focuses heavily on the clashes between the Haribu religion and the Khemesian belief that Pharaoh is God, it is plausible to suggest that this tension in some way reflected Lester's questions and misgivings as he came to terms with his religious inclinations. Outside of the characters' constant references to their differences in religious thought, there actually isn't very much to this book. It is a short novel, with half devoted to Almah and the other half to Moses, bookended by a brief prologue and epilogue. Though this book tries to focus on Moses as a mere man rather than a religious figure, its reimagining of his childhood is too similar to the known story to be truly interesting. It seems that the author wanted to tell a story about a female character during this time period and just used the story of Moses as an excuse to do so.

Though the print in this book is rather large and the reading level is appropriate for fourth or fifth graders, references to lust, nudity, concubines, violence against children, and incest might make it too mature for elementary students. Many of these elements seem gratuitous. Lester explains the nudity in his author's note, and claims there could have been more, but it's still difficult to see the value of describing Almah's naked dances, or the way Pharaoh and her own father ogle her as she performs. It's equally difficult to understand why Moses's fictitious older sister should feel that she would never marry any man other than her own brother. It seems odd to fabricate a sibling relationship which probably did not exist in history simply to hint at an incestuous relationship.

The Pharaoh's Daughter provides a lot of historical documentation, including a glossary, and the author addresses the reader before and after the story, accounting for many (but not all) of his storytelling decisions. The glossary is extremely useful, especially since the author uses Egyptian and Hebrew words for many commonly known people and places (Abraham and Sarah, the Nile, the Sphinx, etc.), but the explanations given by the author do not satisfy my qualms with many of his decisions.

Young readers and educators wishing to explore the life of a religious figure through fiction might be drawn to this book, but it is unlikely to provide what they are looking for. The Moses in this book is not the Moses of the Bible, and Lester's attempts at completely humanizing him often border on the scandalous. Nothing of significance happens in the story until nearly the end, and even then, the only major event is the murder mentioned within the first few pages of the story. It seems that Lester might have done better to write this story for himself, as a component of his conversion, and tuck it away in a drawer for personal use and nothing more.

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