Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reading Through History: The Last Girls of Pompeii by Kathryn Lasky (2007)

Julia has a withered arm, which makes her an outcast in a society which believes physical imperfections are a result of the curse of Venus. Her sister, a very vain young woman, is disgusted by Julia’s appearance and selfishly determined to hold her wedding on the date she prefers - August 24 - despite the fact that many local augurs do not see the date as favorable. The wedding is a bittersweet experience for Julia - and it becomes even more so when she learns that her parents plan to send her away after the ceremony, thus separating her from her slave, Sura, who is her best friend, and her favorite cousin, Marcus, for whom she has secret romantic feelings. All the while, natural signs emerge that foretell the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the end of life in Pompeii.

This book starts out really strong, providing lots of great intimate details about the life and culture of Pompeii. There is lots of really rich vocabulary, describing everything from the clothing planned for the wedding, to the strange delicacies enjoyed by ancient Romans, and the superstitious religious beliefs that govern every decision made by Julia’s family. The knowledge on the part of the reader of what happens historically on August 24, the date of the wedding, gives everything an ominous overtone and a strong sense of suspense. Readers become even more attached to Julia as they realize she may die in the destruction of her city.

Unfortunately, as the story nears its conclusion it takes a strange turn toward the romantic and loses its focus on historical detail. The first three-quarters of the book seemed like they could appeal to either gender and to almost any reader, but when it devolves into more of a love story, it loses that wider appeal. Thankfully, an author’s note after the story does return to a more informative approach, sharing the author’s experiences researching and traveling to Pompeii.

This book probably would not make a great text for teaching about Pompeii, but it would make perfect pleasure reading for middle school girls who have fallen in love with the subject matter and want to read a story set in that time and place. Kathryn Lasky’s way with words is a treat unto itself, and readers will appreciate the way she tells the story, even when the ending takes a turn toward the mundane and coincidental.

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