Thursday, June 13, 2024

The (Mostly) True Story of Cleopatra's Needle

Gutman, Dan. The (Mostly) True Story of Cleopatra's Needle
June 4, 2024 by Holiday House
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

A mother, who is a storyteller, is hanging out with her kid, and the two end up in Central Park near the Cleopatra's Needle obelisk. The kid isn't really interested in the impressive monument, but the mother proceeds to tell a story about it. Starting in about 1425 BCE, we meet Zosar Zubeir, who likes in Aswan, Egypt with his family. They are enslaved people from Syria, but the father is a talented stonecutter who is approached to work on constructing the obelish. It is promised that after the obelisk is done, the family will be freed, but after 621 days of backbreaking work, they are instead retained to work on another monument. There are lots of interesting details about how the stone was cut and made into its shape.

From there, we travel to Heliopolis in 1459. Thurmosis III is the pharaoh, and the drawings of young Lateef Jabari (that his mother had thrown out into the street) come to his attention. He wants Lateef to draw the hieroglyphics proclaiming all of his wonderful accomplishments so the carvers know what to inscribe. Later, Lateef witnesses the construction of a hill of sand and the installation of the needle.

In 1879, Panya Hassan is dismayed to find that Egypt is giving the needle to the US, hoping it will encourage more tourism, although she's not entirely happy to have so many Americans already in her country, looking at the Suez Canal and planning on taking artifacts home with them. She joins protests about this, and is also angry that the Statue of Liberty is being given to the US by France, instead of to Egypt.

Thomas Brighton of England has run away from home and stowed away on a ship. Finding himself in Egypt, he witnesses the efforts to get the obelisk onto a ship so that it can be carried to the US. He keeps a diary, and details how Commander Gorringe cuts a hole in the cargo hold so the needle can be carried there. Thomas has some good engineering ideas, and helps the crew, so he is able to sail with them, although the 39 day voyage is rough and includes a storm.

When the ship arrives in New York City, we meet Rebecca Watson, who is a young inventor aspiring to be the next Thomas Edison. She watches the progress of the needle from the harbor to its home in Central Park with interest. It takes a long time, and meets many difficulties. At one point, Commander Gorringe dines at her house, and after witnessing her invention to make it easier to pass dishes (a rudimentary Lazy Susan with marbles to move the boards), decides to adopt the same design to help with some tricky movements of the monument. It turns out that the storyteller's great grandmother was Rebecca, which is why she is so interested in the story and wants her child to know about it as well.

This was a very unusual format, but it worked. Mr. Gutman lives not far from Cleopatra's Needle, and has often biked by it. During the pandemic (when he wasn't filming delightful readings of his books to share with homebound students), he researched the background, and thought it would be more engaging to see the history through the eyes of young people who might have been involved. He is very clear in the end notes as to what he has made up and what is real; the children are all fictional, but everything that happened is based on some historical backgrounds. This addresses issues of modern concern, like the plight of enslaved people in Ancient Egypt, the theft of antiquities, and the way some groups of people are unfairly treated. There is even mention of a time capsule from 1880 that is under the obelisk; we may never know what was placed in it!

Gutman's work always has a nice mix of humor and history, evident in fictional books like The Flashback Four, Houdini and Me, and the Baseball Card Adventures, and even in nonfiction titles like his Wait! What? series. This is an unusual book, nicely mixing historical details with an engaging story, and would be a fun book to read aloud in a social studies class studying Ancient Egypt. A debate about whether or not antiquities should be returned to their home countries would be a logical offshoot, but perhaps we should just let Cleopatra's Needle stay where it is, given the difficulties in transporting it!

1 comment:

  1. Always enjoyed Gutman's books, this does look interesting too.