The fun, pleasant historical mystery until it wasn’t

Roman Mysteries: Secrets of Vesuvius by Caroline Lawrence

I love the Romans. It’s a known fact. I was super excited to find a series of kids books about them, and I happily settled in for a good read. The first little bit was light and fun, although I knew when it was announced that the children were off to Pompeii that things were probably going to get worse in a hurry. I just wasn’t expecting such a brutal and honest look at the human cost of disaster. I mean, kids serial fiction can, and often does, focus on a narrative drive more than an emotional reality. This book, not so much.

There are two things that I thought were really interesting in this book. One, as that first little rant would suggest is about trauma and history and other big things. The other is the characters.

There are four main characters in this book. Flavia is the most privileged of the group – the daughter of a wealthy Roman ship captain. But, for all her relative safety in life, she really misses her mother, who died in childbirth, along with her younger brothers. Jonathan is a Christian – an illegal religion at the time and is in a sort of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell position within the family. That is, everyone knows that he is a Christian, but no one talks about it because of the legality. Therefore, no matter how much Jonathan loves his friends, he is always a bit of an outside, even in his own home. Nubia is a slave from Africa. The book steers clear of any criticism of slaves, or Flavia, who literally owns Nubia, questioning the morality of owning another person, but Nubia constantly battles with culture shock. She doesn’t understand why things are the way they are in Roman civilization, compared to her homeland. Last of all is Lupus, who had his tongue cut, and always overcomes and is constantly challenged by his disability. So each of these characters brings something relatible and important to the story.

The other major thing and, here are the spoilers, is unimaginable: surviving history. The event of course is the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii. Particularly with events that far into the past, it’s easy to forget that the archeological evidence was once an actual person, who like everyone we’ve ever met breathed and eat and slept and loved and felt fear and sadness and did what they had to to protect what they care about most. This novel explores the terrible human cost of history – quite a few characters die, most surprisingly eight children (kids are usually safe in kids books) and without all things resolved (a husband and wife parted on bad terms and that was never mended because the wife died). They are well loved characters, who should have been safe. They were not great, heroic deaths, there was no long goodbye. Just all these characters died. Blunt and miserable and true to life. Or at least, what I imagine surviving that kind of massive, terrible historical event would be like. It brought out the worst in humanity, like the people who beat Gaius to steal his horse or the men at the tavern Lupus encounters, but also the best in them, like Mordici, who refuses to leaving a dying man or Gaius, who rides back towards the mountain to warn people.

This book was fun and sweet and entertaining but it also made me grateful that my life, so far, has been left alone by Big History. The events that in a hundred years kids will learn about it history classes and people will write historical fiction about haven’t effected me much at all, and I hope I’m lucky enough to life out the rest of my life that way.

Last movie I watched:

Ice Princess. So cute!

Last TV show I watched:

The Fosters! I love this show, so much. So beautiful and so amazing to see people like me on TV.


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