Funny Bones–Geoffrey McSkimming’s Archaeological Adventures

Geoffrey McSkimming’s the author of the dashing Cairo Jim series, which I’ll be talking about on Saturday at the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this week.  In fact, the conference has begun, but while my colleagues are considering how children’s literature engages with the history of classical antiquity, I’m stuck in my hotel room nursing a lovely cold, and hacking cough.  I sound a bit like Cairo Jim’s learned friend, Brenda the Wonder-Camel, who intones quaooo whenever she has a deep thought. 

Anyway, as part of my preparation for this conference, I was recently delighted to interview Geoffrey, whose books are really entertaining and funny, and show how fun and scholarship can coexist in interesting stories for children of all ages.  And I’m looking forward to sharing his work with the Warsaw audience.  Geoffrey’s work can be found at geoffreymcskimming.com, cairojim.com, and 9diamondspress.com.  And the good news is that a new Cairo Jim novel is due out soon…

Here’s what we talked about. 

What drew you to writing archaeological adventure stories?  How did you develop your particular literary style/idiom/aesthetic for your works inspired by Classical Antiquity?

I’ve always loved history and story, especially the classic myths. I was bitten by the Egyptology bug when I was a child and years later I took my first overseas trip, venturing to Africa and finishing up in Egypt. Here I was overwhelmed by the history and the mystery of this country and, after getting sunstroke in the Valley of the Kings, I came up with the world of Cairo Jim and his friends and adventures.

The Cairo Jim chronicles proved to be an excellent avenue for me to explore many of the classical myths, and also those pockets of history where things have become forgotten. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to put my own interpretations on what might have happened in the past, when we are now unsure of the actual events.

When I wrote the Cairo Jim stories I visited many of the locations and ancient sites featured in the chronicles. I spent countless hours in archaeological museums and wandering around crumbling ruins; visiting remote jungle areas and isolated Greek islands; climbing pyramids in Mexico and scaling the insides of them in Egypt. I lived and breathed the air breathed by the characters in my stories and I immersed myself in the ancient tales and myths that took place at these places. In these ways I suppose my literary style and idiom developed, with a healthy dose of outrageous humour and relentless irreverence which have defined much of my life.

GMSK Author pic Final © 9 diamonds press
Geoffrey McSkimming

 

The Cairo Jim books — 19 in all — were written and published over a period of nearly twenty years, and during that time I was able to explore many concepts to do with history and legend. Classical antiquity fuelled much of the world of Cairo Jim; it’s a world to which he’s passionately devoted. I think the series found its legs with the fourth story, Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods, which explores the concept of the disposability of big concepts, in this case being an entire belief system. What happened to cause the people of the time to abandon the Titan gods and take up the Olympians? It’s a mystery that Cairo Jim stumbles upon and one that he must solve before the world as we know it comes crashing down …

Where does the inspiration for Brenda the Wonder Camel come from?  (She is my favourite character—I aspire to be as good a scholar as she).

Brenda developed firstly as a plot device: she was an excellent way to inject information into the narrative (a Wonder Camel who, as a young calf, accidentally consumed all twenty-seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and then retained every bit of knowledge from those tomes is worth her weight in gold!). But it was when I visited a school, shortly after Cairo Jim in Search of Martenarten was published, that I realised how valuable a character – indeed, how valuable all characters in a story – could be. A girl at this school, a student in Year Five, said to me that she really enjoyed the story, but there was one bit she didn’t like. It was the bit when Jim and Doris the macaw went down underground to enter the tomb of the pharaoh Martenarten, leaving Brenda behind, up on the ground. This young girl said to me (and the words changed the course of the chronicles): ‘In my experience, it’s always the quiet ones who get left out.’ Her words struck at my very soul, and I realised for the first time how important characters are to readers. Because of that girl, Brenda the Wonder Camel developed through the years with a wisdom and a quiet, strong presence she may not otherwise have had.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?

Because, with classical / ancient myths, the stories are rich and powerful and they’re filled with great characters. And they’re not afraid to push boundaries and show scallywags behaving naughtily. I also love sharing other stories and other writers with younger readers; hence Doris the macaw is frequently quoting from Shakespeare (and Mr. Shakespeare even appears in Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror). And Phyllis Wong encounters Mary Shelley and the whole world of the creation of Frankenstein in Phyllis Wong and the Girl who Danced with Lightning. I love literary resonance, and sharing these things – I find that exciting. Stories can build on stories, and if that happens respectfully, the foundations of storytelling can only become stronger.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?

When I started writing the chronicles, the internet wasn’t around, so my research was undertaken in libraries and museums and through as much travel as I could afford. I read many old volumes of classical myth and legend, which I still have in my collection. Also on my reading lists were books by explorers like Richard Halleburton, F W Schnitger, Percy Fawcett and others. And Evelyn Waugh’s travel books were a source of inspiration, especially for the times during which he made his trips.

Did you think about how aspects Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?

Not greatly. I suppose the fact that so many of the stories from Classical Antiquity are such strong and entertaining stories, and that they still hold the attention after so many centuries, means that the stories continue to have real currency, and are ripe to be interpreted in stories such as mine.

One thing I try to share with young readers is my experiences of being in the places where the ancient stories played out: describing, for example, the smells of an ancient place and the appearance of the crumbling ruins as evocatively as I can, so that the readers can get a vivid sense of the setting and thus place themselves in the story, ancient or modern. In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus I recreated the House of the Perfumer at Pompeii after spending a lot of quiet time visitng the site, and I tried to evoke the ancient and the modern mystery of that place through the descriptions.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

The series I’m writing at present, the Phyllis Wong Mysteries, do use classical material in some of the stories. In Phyllis Wong and the Waking of the Wizard, the legends of Myrddin (Merlin) come to life when a sinister figure from the past tries to lure the great wizard into the present to bring down civilisation as we know it …

Anything else you think we should know?

Two things: 1. A brand new Cairo Jim story is coming soon, and 2. licorice and Gruyère cheese don’t go well together.

Noted!  Thanks very much, Geoffrey—we look forward to the new CJ novel.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

Advertisements

Thinking about Nature with Donna Jo Napoli’s Fish Girl…

Like so many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nature lately–I’m sure don’t need to tell you why.  As part of the Our Mythical Childhood project, I’m thinking about how children’s writers and illustrators use myth to make sense of the natural world: what it is, how it works, how we live in it–how we should take care of it–what happens when we don’t.  Children are natural beings, and yet as adults, we’re aware that the human race has not done well by nature–seeing it as something to be plundered and exploited, rather than cherished and nurtured.  How we talk about it in their books has implications, and ramifications.  (It’s great to see children’s illustrators joining together to support children in their concerns about the environment.)

One set of myths that highlight our relation to nature centre on the figure of the mermaid–half woman, half fish–caught between worlds.  Stories like Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, TV series like H2O: Just Add Wateror films like Miyazaki’s Ponyo highlight human exploitation of the seas–through fishing, through pollution–and encourage a more respectful relation between both. Meanwhile Jessica Love’s Julian is a Mermaid, as I’ve discussed, explores diversity and respect for difference.

Screenshot 2019-05-08 21.57.44

Fish Girl, a lovely graphic novel by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner, explores these ideas, and more, in a story about isolation, exploitation, and eventual escape and survival.  Fish Girl is the story of a mermaid who was kidnapped as a baby by a fisherman who found her in his catch. Seeing financial opportunity, he set up a seaside attraction in an old house, calling it ‘Ocean Wonders,’ posing as Neptune, the ‘god of seas and storms,’ and charging visitors $2 to ‘see the mysterious fish girl.’ The mermaid is captive in a large tank, which she shares with fish and an octopus, and which is decorated like a girl’s bedroom. The mermaid’s job is to play hide-and-seek with visitors, who try to see her in her tank, and to collect the pennies they have thrown into the tank. She has reached adolescence, and her best friend is a red octopus.

Eventually, the mermaid meets a human girl, and they become friends.  The tank suddenly seems more confining and lonely, and the mermaid finds a way to leave it, to join the outside world. It’s a lovely, but melancholy book, highlighting the melancholy at the heart of mermaid myths, such as the Little Mermaid, and reminiscent in places of novels of kidnapping and isolation, such as Room.  The melancholy story is supported by David Wiesner’s delicate illustrations–the colour palette, of blues and greens and corals, entirely appropriate, but also making glancing allusions to Disney’s Little Mermaid, or Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo.

Children’s books don’t have to be direct to make serious points–and Fish Girl invites us to think about the natural world–its power, and its fragility–our place in it, and our responsibility for it.

I took my enjoyment of this lovely book as an excuse to write to Donna Jo Napoli, to interview her for the Our Mythical Childhood survey.  Donna Jo is a widely published author and academic.  She’s a linguist and a teacher, has a degree in Mathematics, and on top of all that, has a voluminous output of retellings and adaptations of myths, fairytales, and folklore, as well as stories about nature and inspirational people.  It was a delight to interview her.

 

Interview with Donna Jo Napoli

donnajo2017

1. What drew you to writing/working with Classical Antiquity and what challenges did you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories? 

I think it started with my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Reynolds. She brought the old tales to life — all their passion and intrigue and misery. I got involved in the Latin club, and then in the Latin Forum of the State of Florida. I even ran a state forum one year. When I went to college, I didn’t follow up on Latin. But in graduate school, I had to pass a test in reading Latin. I decided not to prepare for it, but just go in and see what happened. I passed — after four years away from Latin. And that’s because Mrs. Reynolds was so terrific. The experience reminded me of how much I loved those stories. After that I went for years not doing anything with Latin. But in Spring 2013, a classics professor at Swarthmore, Rosaria Munson, and I co-taught a course on The Hero’s Journey. We looked at Virgil’s Aeneid, then Dante’s Divina Commedia, then Eugenio Montale’s poetry — all in the original Latin, then Old Italian, then modern Italian — talking about historical change in language as well as variations on the themes in the different works. It was thrilling reading the Aeneid again. And it was thrilling seeing the relevance of the old works to modern life.

In FISH GIRL I didn’t think of any particular myth. Rather, I tried to use the ancient feeling that the seas are full of potential. Mysterious creatures live and rule there. Ordinary understandings of how life works don’t necessarily hold. Though David and I didn’t put in any snakes growing out of heads or talking animals, we allowed the octopus to grow to enormous size and then shrink again, where emotions were the key to the size changes. And we allowed the fish in Fish Girl’s tank to recognize that she was somehow changing and to respond accordingly.

2. Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences? 

We know a great deal of facts about the world now, many more than the ancients did. But we still lack understanding of many things. For example, we don’t even really know how it is that trees manage to pump water up from the ground to their crowns. We’ve rejected osmosis as the answer — but there is no presently agreed upon answer. And that is a rather mundane thing — something happening around us all the time, but we haven’t a clue about what’s going on. We are much more in the dark about the arcane things. And the more we learn about both life on earth and space way out there, the more we recognize how little we truly understand.

The ancients tried to give reasons for everything… for earthquakes and tsunamis and lightning. They sought to see a comprehensive picture. And within that picture, they tried to adjust to the vagaries of human behavior. I think young people today would like a comprehensive picture within which they could make some kind of sense of the natural world and human behavior within it. It is comforting to see characters in the ancient tales struggle with the same human foibles we struggle with. And it is comforting to see that they too were stupified by natural events around them… different natural events from the ones that stupify us today, perhaps… but no less enigmatic.

3. Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?  

Ah, I answered some of that in question 1. For most fiction work I do that is placed in classical times, I use translations into English of Homer, Hesiod, and Apollodorus. I stay away from Wikipedia on this — although I love Wikipedia for many other things (it is a great source of information about languages and linguistics, for example, because the Linguistic Society of America urges its members to add information to Wikipedia and correct anything that’s dubious).

Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers? Absolutely. I did a book for National Geographic called Treasury of Greek Mythology. In there I chose to present the stories that I most love. They were written in Greek, of course, and I don’t read Greek, so I had to look at translations. An interesting thing about translations is that the same story is quite differently translated by scholars in different points of history…. or that’s what I concluded from my very small and limited study. Looking at translations from the 1700s through today, I found myself making choices based on my own sensibilities — which is what I’m sure those translators did. I also read many of the stories in Latin — in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I suspect that Ovid influenced me most. Certainly with respect to the creation tale. Ovid’s words swirl and transform themselves, wonderfully evocative and still illusive. I aimed for that sense in my rendering of the creation tale.

4. How concerned were you with “accuracy” or “fidelity” to the original? (another way of saying that might be—that I think writers are often more “faithful” to originals in adapting its spirit rather than being tied down at the level of detail—is this something you thought about?) 

Yes, this is a major concern I had, more so in Treasury than in Fish Girl, since Fish Girl was a character that David and I created in a more-nearly modern world. For Treasury I always used the details that were in the originals — I never changed them. But I added a modern psychology, which was a personal choice, but I expect that choice was unavoidable. That is, I cannot help but see the behaviors of characters as reflecting the way I, as a person of today, understand human behavior.

5. Are you planning any further forays into classical material? 

I don’t plan far ahead. Whatever I’m working on at the moment is my world. Presently, I’m deep into the world of the Ancient Hebrews. But I’m nearly finished with this project. Where I will go next is unclear to me. I have a story in my head set in India in the late 1800s, and I’d like to work on that. But interruptions happen — and I am always open to happy serendipities. Will I ever return to the classical world of Greece? I can’t know that — but the stories are eternal fonts of wisdom and pain — so I hope I do.

6. Anything else you think we should know? 

Ha! what a funny question. But I will answer it. People often assume that I know more than I know. It’s as though working with the classics gives you an aura of respectability and of nearly encyclopedic knowledge. The truth is, I bumble through things. I’m not afraid to deal with what I don’t understand, because I understand so little that if I let that fear stop me, I wouldn’t write anything. And, you know, if I fully understood things, I would have no motivation to write. For me, writing is a way of tackling problems, a way of trying to get a sense a peace. But rarely do I ever feel I “know” something or truly “understand” it.

 

Thank you!

—Elizabeth Hale

Hopeless Heroes–interview with Stella Tarakson

Last week I had the pleasure to meet Stella Tarakson, the author of the delightful Hopeless Heroes series.  They’re chapter books for primary school kids, and feature the adventures of a boy called Tim, who accidentally invokes the hero Heracles, when he breaks his mother’s favourite vase.  Mayhem and mischief ensue–Heracles is strong but needs direction, and Hera and Hermes are continually meddling.  (The first few books are written up in the Our Mythical Childhood survey …) 

Tarakson is from Sydney, Australia.  Her parents emigrated from Greece, and she talked with me about how the Greek myths resonated for her as a child, and now as a storyteller.  It was fascinating to hear her thoughts, and to think about the different ways that Greek myth travels around the world–to the Southern Hemisphere and back again.  Tarakson’s books are published by a British publisher, though I like to think a bit of Aussie quirk has made its way into them through her gently irreverent take on the heroic legends.

Hopeless Heroes, by Stella Tarakson, illustrated by Nick Roberts
Hopeless Heroes, by Stella Tarakson, illustrated by Nick Roberts

What drew you to writing the Hopeless Heroes stories?  How did you develop your particular literary style/idiom/aesthetic for your works inspired by Classical Antiquity? 

Being the daughter of Greek migrants, I’ve grown up on a steady diet of Greek mythology. When I was very young, my father used to tell me many of the tales – I suppose he was continuing the great oral tradition of our ancestors! Books came next, and I’m lucky to still have most of them. My parents were very keen to pass their culture and identity on to their children, especially in a new country far from home. Now that my own children are growing, I also feel the need to ‘pass it on’, keeping the link alive for future generations. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to share these stories with a wider audience, and it’s wonderful to have readers from all around the world enjoying my books!  My literary style is not traditional, though. I’ve also grown up with a love of British comedy, which comes out quite strongly in the Hopeless Heroes series.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?

The myths continue to resonate with young audiences because we’ve never lost our fascination with monsters and heroes. Greek mythology is filled with passion and excitement, the characters are larger than life, and there are continuing parallels with our lives today. The human condition hasn’t changed in thousands of years and I don’t think it ever will.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect? 

I don’t have a classical education – I have degrees in Economics and Law from the University of Sydney – but I’ve always been interested in the classics. Once I started writing Hopeless Heroes, I decided I wanted to learn more. I’ve re-enrolled at USyd part-time and I’ve been studying ancient history and classical archaeology. It’s wonderful to be able to study something purely out of interest! My main source is Barry Powell’s Classical Myth published by Pearson. I also like the website www.theoi.com. And before I go on, I’ve got to say how thrilled I am to be invited to be part of your Mythical Childhood study. It’s an honour.

Did you think about how aspects of Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers? 

As you know, many Greek myths are rather Adult Only. I had to think very carefully about how to be age-appropriate, while staying as true to the myths as possible. I avoided the bloodier tales, and edged carefully around sexual issues. For instance, Hera hates Hercules (yes, I had to use the more familiar Roman name) because she’s jealous of his beautiful mother. Which is true. However, I didn’t come right out and say why! Even so, children learn a lot about Greek history and mythology from the books. Many teachers in the UK have been reading them to their classes as part of the class studies. I’m actually teaching by stealth!

How do you go about working with the comic/comedic aspects of classical antiquity?

I’ve incorporated comedy by accentuating the flaws of the Greek heroes and by placing them in unexpected situations. For example, Hercules is super-strong but not exactly super-smart. In book 1, which is set in the modern day, he insists on using skills he developed while performing the Twelve Labours. Sadly they don’t work so well when it comes to tackling housework and school bullies.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

Yes, I’m definitely planning further forays! I’ve already had a few plays published in the Australian Readers Theatre, (Blake Education), that combine the classics with Australian history. I’ve written The Flying Finish, where Pegasus and Bellerophon enter the Melbourne Cup; The Gold Rush Touch, where a goldfields prospector succumbs to the Midas Touch; and Pandora’s Ballot Box, where a young girl encounters the suffragette movement. They bring the classics to life in a new way, and show that they are still very relevant and relatable today!

Anything else you think we should know?

The Hopeless Heroes books aren’t just retelling of the myths – that’s been done many times before. The stories begin when 10-year-old Tim Baker accidentally breaks an ancient amphora, and discovers that Hercules had been trapped inside it for thousands of years. Once repaired, the vase allows Tim to travel back to Ancient Greece. He befriends Hercules’ daughter Zoe (an addition to the traditional myths), and together they encounter famous heroes, escape bizarre monsters, solve baffling puzzles, and even defy the gods themselves. I only hope they don’t hold grudges …

Elizabeth Hale

I came, I saw, I threw up–slapstick history in Julius Zebra

‘I’d forgotten what an impetuous little donkey you are’–The Emperor Hadrian, Julius Zebra: Entangled with the Egyptians.

As part of my mission to think about history and comedy, I’ve been reading Gary Northfield’s very funny Julius Zebra series of middle-grade chapter books  In the first of them, Rumble with the Romans, Julius, a zebra from the ‘stinky lake’ in the middle of Africa, is captured and taken to Rome to visit the circus.  Actually, that’s what he thinks at first.  In fact, he’s taken to be in the circus, to fight for his life in front of the Emperor Hadrian.  At first it doesn’t go so well for Julius and his friends, but when a gladiator calls him a ‘stripy horse,’ Julius sees red and finds his fighting instincts, becoming the crowd’s, and the Emperor’s favourite.

It’s a kind of Spartacus-meets-Gladiator –meets Asterix-meets-Beano-and-Dandy romp, mixing madcap mayhem with quite a bit of historical information along the way, and it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read about Ancient Rome in a a long time.

Bundle with the Britons is the second in the Julius Zebra series, in which Julius and his friends are sent to Britain to subdue the Britons by taking on their fearsome gladiators.  But when they go on a training run through a swamp, they meet an old woman in a hut, who tells them about the great Iceni warrior, Boudicca, and shows them how to paint themselves with woad, they join forces with their British counterparts, to overthrow the Romans.  Next up is Entangled with the Egyptians, where Julius, fleeing from Hadrian, ends up in Egypt, where he is mistaken for a horse god who can make it rain.  And the last, so far, in the series, is Grapple with the Greeks, in which the great hero Heracles drags Julius and his friends to Greece to help him find his lost Golden Apple.

Northfield creates a merry band of companions for his hero.  There’s Cornelius, the know-it all warthog.  He functions much like Brenda the Wonder-Camel in the Cairo Jim books, providing information when necessary.  (Even if Julius mishears half of it, and misunderstands the rest, the information is very helpful for readers.)  There’s Lucia, the crocodile, whose cunning escape plans seem always to lead the gang back to their captors.  Rufus, the amiable giraffe, always up for adventure, Felix, the rock-collecting antelope, and Milus, a grumpy lion.  Sometimes the gang is joined by their gladiatorial-combat instructor, Pliny the mouse.  And once Julius is reunited with his dimwitted brother, Brutus, even more mayhem ensues.

Together, Julius and friends travel the Roman empire, from Africa to Rome, to Britain, to Egypt and Greece, matching wits with Septimus, a bad-tempered teacher of gladiators, and the emperor himself.

The novels are an enticing mixture of text and cartoons, with a lot of shouting, slapstick and bad puns.  Chapters have titles like ‘I came, I saw, I threw up,’ (Romans) and ‘I want my Mummy’ (in Egyptians), and ‘Hoo noo broon coo’ (Britons), and the humour doesn’t err on the side of subtlety.  But again, along the way, is a great deal of information, delivered in part by Cornelius the warthog, and visible in the details of Northfield’s text and illustrations.  He’s clearly done his research, and for readers eager to know more about Ancient Rome, each volume has a final chapter in which Cornelius teaches how to count in Roman Numerals, and a glossary in which Northfield explains the fundamentals of daily life in antiquity.

These books don’t only give you a good laugh, they teach you something, namely details about a long-ago world. They make me want to know more–to check up on things I’d forgotten, and to think about things I hadn’t heard about before.  And they gave me something to think about: they may not be intended as post-colonial critiques of empire, but there’s certainly a resonance in seeing a group of African animals, kidnapped to entertain the humans of Rome, break free and start a rebellion, in Rome and Britain.  Hadrian’s obsession with his big Wall in Britain offers another sort of modern resonance.  Looking at how the animals band together to outwit the humans, whose intentions are seldom good, I can’t help thinking about how our human world exploits animals.  There are other resonances: animals, like children, are often bossed around by adults, and children identify with animals’ innocence and comparative kindness.  Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it’s nothing to what humans get up to.

Funny books don’t have to be educational, but they often are, perhaps despite themselves.  Through humour, action, fun characters, and amusing situations, Julius Zebra and friends convey a great deal of nonsense, but they also teach us a great deal about the the world–ancient or modern.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

The shadows where History is heaviest–Cairo Jim goes to Pompeii

Following on from my last post, where I paid tribute to Brenda the Wonder Camel’s brilliant scholarship in Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, I’m thinking more about humorous history books for kids in preparation for the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this May. I’ve been alternating between another Cairo Jim novel–Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, and British author Gary Northfield’s Julius Zebra novels. I can’t decide which I like more, which is sillier, which is ruder, and also which offers a more interesting reflection on history. In fact, there’s no competition–they’re equally good in different ways. And I’ll talk about Julius Zebra next time. For the moment, I’ll carry on with Cairo Jim.

At the house of Phibius Whiffius

In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, the gang gathers in Pompeii. They meet a beautiful French archaeobotanist, called Bette Noir, who is trying to reconstruct an ancient perfume, Pardalium, which gives the possessor power over all things and everyone. She found the recipe at the House of the Garden of Hercules, owned by a perfumer, she says, who was resplendently named Phibius Whiffius. In order to complete her reconstruction, she needs the spittle of a panther, and has written off to the Dubbo Zoo in NSW, Australia to request some.

While Bette Noir, Doris and Jim are chatting over drinks in the Garden of Hercules, Brenda the Wonder Camel strikes again, quietly working in Bette’s lab. She has panther in her soul, at least that’s what I think she has, and she draws on it to extract the required spittle from the depths of her being, shooting it perfectly into a waiting pipette, sealing said pipette in an envelope, and writing a message from the Dubbo Zoo. What a camel. As a calf, Brenda has swallowed the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which may account for her general brilliance.

Anyway, Bette Noir makes up the perfume, and then Neptune Flannelbottom gets hold of it, and uses it to bring the Telamons to life. Telamons are human-shaped columns, male caryatids, usually thought of as Atlas figures, support structures in other words. A telamon wandering around the streets of Pompeii could cause some damage. Luckily, Cairo Jim and his friends are equal to the challenge, and order is restored.

The evidence of time

This is all rather far-fetched. But it has a core of accuracy that provides a solid bedrock for a great deal of fun and games. There is indeed a House of the Garden of Hercules, and it is thought that the resident was involved in the perfume trade. McSkimming shares photographs of the house, and shots of different parts of Pompeii.

Cairo Jim, who early on reflects that as he walks through the streets of Pompeii, he is walking on the ‘evidence of time,’ is alert to every aspect of the city.

He observed the gentle sunlight, still not too bright at this time of day, and the way it was filtering down through the trees and the broken walls that he walked by. He listened to the birds as they sang their sweet, tiny songs all across the ruined city, and he thought how the birdsong seemed to be a balm . . . a soothing veil of sound cocooning Pompeii from the terrible memories of the past. He smelled the intoxicating aromas of ancient places–smells that he had come to recognise and love from his many years of being at sites such as this. The smells of old, old marble and terracotta, and the fragrances of shadows (he had discovered some time ago that the shadows where History is heaviest have a smell like no other), and the occasional whiff of rotting vegetation from fallen leaves all intermingled with each other, and drifted into his nostrils. (41-42).

This is just before Jim and the gang meet Bette Noir, learn about her plan to reconstruct the powerful scents of the past, and the mayhem and antics get going. Jim is moved by the scents he smells, to write a poem, which I quote below.

Pompeii had its yesterday

and yesterday before it,

but what took place, ‘neath skies of grey

and black–one can’t ignore it.

This pumice all around the town,

this litter of destruction

is testament to what went down:

Vesuvius’ interruption!

Yet now as boots with modern soles

tread quietly through the city,

we see despite the many holes

piled high with all the gritty

bits of Nature’s overflow

(these stones of igneous fury)

just what it is these ruins show:

that Time is judge and jury’ (43)

Well, it’s poetry of a sort. Doris the Macaw, one of Jim’s companions, objects: ‘There’s a time and place for poetry, and Pompeii is definitely not it!’ (43) Realism intrudes, until the preposterous plot gets going.

There’s a time and place for comedy

I’ve been mulling about the role of comedy in presenting history to young readers. Within the fun of Cairo Jim lurks a serious appreciation of ancient culture, and the novel gives a lot of information for those who seek it. With each novel I read, I learn a bit more about major archaeological sites, and with it, a bit more about ancient cultures. I’ve always preferred to glean my history from fiction: perhaps it’s the bit-by-bit approach I like, the puzzling things together, the finding things out, learning new things, being stimulated to look things up. For this post, I looked up the House of the Garden of Hercules, Telamons, and Pardalium, the ancient perfume that Bette Noir is trying to recreate. All of them are real things, though Pardalium may not possess the powers it has in this novel, and now they are things I know, as opposed to never having heard of (Pardalium), vaguely heard of (The House of the Garden of Hercules), or never really wondered about but should have (Telamons, or: what is a male Caryatid?).

Lightening the heaviness of history?

So, funny books can help you (or at least me) learn interesting facts. But can they lead you astray? This may be a worry for some guardians of scholarship, or of young minds: the danger that readers of The Crossroads of Orpheus may think that Phibius Whiffius is a real Pompeiian, that Pardalium has magic powers, that camels really can swallow the Encyclopedia Britannica and become psychic polymaths. Well, maybe not the last one (or … maybe they can . . consult your local camel to find out) . And indeed, that’s the clue: the comedy works because the funny bits are clearly of our own world, and that the real bits are clearly marked as real. Children encountering Phibius Whiffius may not instantly get the joke, but they will smell a literary rat, may ask a parent, or look things up. And they may have a discussion with parents or teachers or other children about Pompeii, what happened there, and be moved to find out more.

But having said that, Jim’s nostrils may quiver at the smells of time, and it is of course appropriate to reflect on the scale of the tragedy that Pompeii suffered, and to think with empathy about the difficulties of other parts of the world. But there is also space to reflect on how Romans (and others) lived: eating, drinking, making and smelling perfume. And sometimes, there’s simply the pure pleasure of laughter, the best medicine for all sorts of situations, past and present: lightening the heaviness, both of history and of the present.

Elizabeth Hale