Mara, Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGrath

maraYou may have heard of Ms. McGrath’s 1962 Newbery-winning title, The Golden Goblet, a wonderful middle grade story of ancient Egypt. (My review.) Well, this is another fabulous tale of that intriguing and little-known land, but this one is for a teen audience and far more involved. It was written in 1953, but don’t let the date scare you. It could have been written last year.

Seventeen-year-old Mara, guttersnipe of Abydos, thinks her luck has changed. Purchased away from her cruel master, she finds her new one equally hard. And the task he’s set for her nearly impossible. For he works for the Queen of Egypt, the usurping female Pharoah Hapshepsut. And he demands that Mara use her new position as interpreter for the visiting princess of Syria to spy on those who would set the true pharaoh on the thrown—Hapshepsut’s younger brother Thutmose II. But if Mara succeeds, she will be freed from slavery forever and rewarded with great wealth.

On the way to Thebes she meets Sheftu, a cool, confident, hard young man whose composure and bearing don’t seem to match his humble scribe’s employment. In fact, she soon learns he isn’t at all what he claims but the leader of the rebellion. When Sheftu demands she deliver messages between himself and Thutmose, Mara decides to play both sides against the other.

I could hardly stand the suspense that builds up as Mara nearly loses her cover half a dozen times. The political intrigue is wonderfully done, and Mara’s wits and charm make her the perfect heroine for the story. But she has one weakness, one that makes the end a bit predictable. (History, too, makes it predictable.) She falls in love with Sheftu.

A wonderful novel that doesn’t shy away from those hard-to-write scenes of action and suspense. It just keeps coming and coming, building until you can’t put the book down. And as demonstrated in The Golden Goblet, McGrath is masterful at relaying the splendor of Egypt, setting us right down inside the culture with its customs, its mindset, its pantheon of gods, and those daily human details of labor and sustenance and love. A great accompaniment to a high school Ancient History class. Highly, highly recommended.

Mara, Daughter of the Nile is unavailable for Kindle, but paperback copies are only a few bucks.

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