Star-Crossed Friends in Ancient Greece
AMBER & CLAY
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Julia Iredale
The amber in Laura Amy Schlitz’s confident, playful historical novel is Melisto, a girl born in fifth-century B.C. Athens to a rich father who adores her and a mother who does not. The clay is Rhaskos, a Thracian boy whose mother is enslaved and who therefore is enslaved himself. Once, when he was a small child, she sneaked him into a storeroom and opened a jar of honey for him to taste. “My time with my mother was like that,” he notes, “golden and secret / and over too soon.”
Although they live in very different worlds and haven’t met, Melisto and Rhaskos are soon connected in a way they don’t realize: Unbeknown to Rhaskos, his mother has been sold to Melisto’s family and become her nurse.
Both children are powerless about their futures — Melisto because she is young and female, Rhaskos because he is enslaved. Melisto is chosen to leave home and serve the goddess Artemis; Rhaskos is sold without warning to a potter in Athens when his master, Menon, grows weary of him. They each experience terrifying physical violence: Melisto has clumps of her hair torn out and is pushed down a flight of stairs by her mother; Rhaskos has his nose broken twice by Menon.
Schlitz (“The Hired Girl”) is a Newbery Medal winner, and hops from one style to another with tremendous skill. The story is told partly in verse and partly in prose; the voice alternates between first person and third person, with the gods — Hermes in particular — stepping in as occasional choruses to the action.
The text is complemented by Julia Iredale’s delightful illustrations of imaginary archaeological finds: an ostracon (or pottery shard), a strigil (or scraper used to clean the body after exercise), some painted vases. They’re accompanied by museum exhibit cards, to give the reader information about what they depict.
Schlitz ably conveys children’s wordless emotions, like the feeling of not really wanting to do something destructive but not being able to stop yourself. When Melisto smashes her new terracotta doll because she is angry with her mother, her rage is palpable: “She was bad even to herself. She crooked her elbow over her face and sobbed.” Later, she finds herself the friend and protector of an irritating younger girl, who wants to share a riddle with their other friends. Melisto refuses: “Elpis was a nuisance; Melisto had accepted that, but she wasn’t about to share her.”
The Acropolis acts as compass and inspiration to Rhaskos and Melisto, as they lead their separate lives, amid the noise and stench of Athens. Rhaskos even manages to befriend Socrates. Schlitz reveals what her keenest Platonist readers might already have guessed: Rhaskos is the slave with whom Socrates discusses geometry in Plato’s “Meno” dialogue.
When Melisto leaves the city to join the Artemis cult, the pace of the novel slows. Then lightning strikes as she dances with a bear she’s freed from sacrifice and her nurse sets in motion a chain of events that will tie together Melisto’s and Rhaskos’s story lines at last.
Curious typographical decisions mean that some Greek words are printed in the Greek alphabet, some names are transliterated (Akhilleus for Achilles) and others are given in their usual English form (Apollo). Oddly, one is shifted into Anglicized modern Greek: The town of Laurium becomes Lavrion.
But this shouldn’t deter Schlitz’s readers from time-traveling to ancient Athens and joining her adventure.
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