What is the purpose of historical fiction? For many, it is an enjoyable way to learn about the people and events of the past, without the traditional textbook presentation of dry fact-blahblahblah-more dry facts and “When am I ever going to need to know this?”
But historical fiction can serve an important educational purpose by teaching our kids to engage with the content and test its accuracy against known historical facts. We understand by its label that the genre of ‘historical fiction’ means that the author is interpreting the past, imagining events, as well as the thoughts and emotions of the people involved, but as these are people of another time, possibly another culture, historical fiction can be a great tool for critical thinking exercises.
Historical fiction is very difficult to do well. The plot should be driven by actual events in order to maintain an atmosphere of authenticity. The language should be consistent and reflect its era without being overwhelmed by archaic words or idioms specific to that time without explaining their context. It is best when the reader says “This is what it must have felt like.” Hope Auer has largely succeeded in this task with A Cry From Egypt.
A Cry From Egypt is the first novel in The Promised Land Series. It is a story set in ancient Egypt, the time when the children of Israel were held captive by the Egyptians and compelled to endure enormous cruelty and hardship as a nation of slaves.
We are immediately transported on the ground to ancient Egypt, and the life of a young girl named Jarah, who is the child of Israelite slaves. The mother and father do not share the same beliefs about God, and this causes much strife in the family. The mother is very critical of the father’s desire to teach his children the ways of Yahweh, and wants them raised to believe in the gods of the Egyptians. Jarah herself is very discouraged, wondering why Yahweh doesn’t answer her prayers, and why their life is so hard.
Then they get wind of the miracles Moses and Aaron are performing before Pharaoh, and they see how their water is not affected by the curse of blood. But their hopes are immediately crushed when the Egyptians continue to make their lives more difficult by forcing them to bring water from Goshen until the Nile goes back to normal. With each plague, their hopes rise, and with each plague, their hopes are dashed as they are tasked to clean up the ravaged land, and the Egyptians view them with suspicion and growing hostility.
Throughout all these trials, as Jarah seeks to find answers, to learn more about God and to be able to trust Him, she also begins to see the Egyptians with eyes of compassion. Trying to intervene when an overseer is beating her brother Eitan, her ability to see him in as a lost and deceived human being makes the difference:
“All he knows are statues. He doesn’t know how to love and he has no one to love him. At least I have my family, even if we don’t always get along. If he knew love he probably wouldn’t be doing this to us, He would love us instead, like, like Yahweh loves us…”
Each of the characters have their own personal test of faith beneath the overarching story line. Jarah’s brother Eiten believes he knows who Yahweh wants Him to marry, but the girl he loves is sequestered in the palace, all of Egypt is immersed in chaos, and another young man also has designs on this girl. Eiten is hoping for a miracle, and he struggles to trust his future to whatever Yahweh wills.
Another character is a young woman, Ada, a servant to the Queen of Egypt, and she allows us to experience the horror and pain that the plagues brought to the Egyptian people, wondering if their gods would deliver them, or if Pharaoh would let the Israelites go.
The story helps us see that in any time of crisis or despair, we can choose our response, and where or in whom we place our faith.
A great resource for discussion and further study is at the end of the book, where the author shares her sources with us, and the results of her research of ancient Egypt. She also tells us why she made some of the choices she did in the story.
Thoughts from my positive side:
- The Bible events are portrayed in a manner consistent with Scriptural accounts of that time.
- The author conveys realistic responses to the apocalyptic events taking place, and this encourages us to imagine what it really felt like to experience the confusion, the despair, and the plagues themselves.
- It is fast-paced and maintains interest in the lives of the characters.
- There are personal conflicts for each character underlying the primary conflict of the story, which help make these dramatic events personal to us.
- Obviously there is violence, gross plagues, and death, but they are presented within the realm of authenticity for the story, and at a level suitable for most young readers.
Concerns from my writing teacher side WITH SPOILERS:
- The story starts with a dream sequence, which is a plot device that usually leaves the reader feeling cheated unless it is an important way to move the plot forward. Dream sequences are also difficult because most are not written as we experience dreams. Our dreams are usually unrealistic and nonsensical, and they seldom come true in any way. It also would have been more appropriate to print the dream in italics, to set it apart from the ‘real’ action in the story.
- The story is written from different perspectives- distant/omniscient third person, where the narrator knows everything and the narrative is relayed in a more factual manner; and close third person, where we enter into the thoughts and emotions of the characters. At first the main protagonist is the narrator, but then perspective begins to jump from character to character… to character.
- In one scene, Jarah hears a voice speaking to her, telling her that He is God and to trust Him. On Passover night, she also has a dream, or possibly a vision, of what is probably the angel of death hovering over her brother with a flaming sword. That’s a bit more dramatic license than I personally would take with a Bible story. And again- dreams should be in italics to set them apart from the ‘real’ action of the story.
- In the midst of all the insanity, the Pharoah’s BFF comes to him to receive permission for his son to marry an Israelite servant girl. The servant girl doesn’t want to marry an Egyptian, if at all, and the Queen agrees to try to talk the Pharaoh out of forcing the girl to marry. Another use of dramatic license that did not ring true for me. I’m not a big fan of love triangles, or any kind of love geometry.
- The Queen of Egypt also pleads the case to Pharaoh for the Israelites, although she is motivated by self-interest. After the night of Passover, she is ‘converted’ and lets her servant girl Ada go. I couldn’t suspend disbelief on that one either.
The background story of the author, Hope Auer, is as compelling as the book itself. She began writing this story at age 13 because of her family’s studies of ancient Egypt. The cover art was also done by homeschooled student Mike Slaton. It is encouraging to see these young people using their gifts and talents in productive ways.
A Cry From Egypt is being published by Hal and Melanie Young of Raising Real Men. You can also find out more at:
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