Notes from the Black Lagoon

The Last Girls of Pompeii

Posted on: February 26, 2008

I have a guilty secret to confess. I’m a children’s librarian and I love to read. I just don’t love to read children’s books. Let me clarify. I adore pictures books. I rejoice in easy readers. I abhore most children’s fiction. I’ve tried really hard and I feel so guilty because there are tons of childrens’ librarians out there who LOVE kidlit. So, in the spirit of the new year, I’ve made a resolution to try and read more kid’s fiction from our collection. Here’s my first attempt:

Last Girls of Pompeii by Kathryn Lasky

The Last Girls of Pompeii by Kathryn Lasky takes us back to the vibrant world of ancient Pompeii in the Roman Empire, full of augers, soothsayers and bizarre wedding customs. 12 year old Julia is a member of the city’s most prominent family and is its last unmarried daughter. Born with a shriveled arm, Julia had spent most of her youth with her slave, Sura, sheltered by her her loving family, including her doting cousin Marcus. As her sister Cornelia’s wedding day draws nearer, so does Julia’s and Sura’s dread about their uncertain futures. Sura’s eavesdropping reveals a master plan to give the deformed Julia (who is not expected to marry) as a priestess to a prominent cult’s temple and sell Sura to finance Cornelia’s open-bar reception. Lasky builds the sense of impending doom by alluding to tremors, noxious gases and other tell-tale signs of Mount Vesuvius’s tragic eruption that would eventually take place in August of AD 79. This is nicely juxtaposed nicely with both girls’ struggle to come to terms with the meaning of freedom and the ability of each to chose her own future. The book also explores the complicated and beautiful relationships between sisters and, through Sura and Julia’s relationship, suggests that sisterly ties can exist beyond the bounds of family. The most problematic parts of the book center around the character of 15 year old, Marcus, Julia’s cousin. Though Marcus, who laughs at the supposed silliness of Roman traditions and religion, Lasky tries to present a modern understanding of physical deformities that seems a little too anachronistic to fit in with the rest of the story. While admirable, this contributes to the plot’s uneven pacing: It drags in the middle as Julia is dragged from one oracle to another and then abruptly jumps forward with lightning-quick speed as Marcus proposes marriage as a way for them both to escape their fates. Modern middle grade readers may also be a bit puzzled over the budding love of first cousins (an acceptable Roman social more). All in all, this novel is an interesting idea for historical fiction. It richly describes Roman life while providing a deep exploration of the two protagonists but it ultimately leaves readers hanging with its uneven plot.


1 Response to "The Last Girls of Pompeii"

I was interested to read your review about this book. I am currently reading this to my 7 year old daughter who is obsessed with Pompeii (after learning about it from Doctor Who, of all places!) I, too, have noticed the uneven pace of the book. We are more than halfway through and still no sign of Vesuvius errupting! Still, at the end of each night, when I ask my daughter if she wants to keep reading it, she gives a whole-hearted yes! I have also been surprised by how much of the story she retains. The only real stumbling blocks we have had in terms of comprehension is that she cannot quite understand what exactly a slave is–the fact that one person is owned by another. And I also had to (gently) explain to her what a concubine is, after the scene where Sura overhears Julia’s parents discussing how they will sell her to the loathsome clothmaker.

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