|Vicky Alvear Schecter|
Not so Long Ago or so Far Away
By Vicky Alvear Shecter
Since my passion is ancient history, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to connect current attitudes with their ancient echoes. For example, when researching my latest novel, Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii, I was fascinated to learn that Pompeii was not—as is so often portrayed—a crowded city at the time of the eruption. Months of tremors and rumblings had convinced most of the population to leave.
Still, about 1,200 bodies have been found in Pompeii. So why did these folks stay? “Think Katrina,” I prompt teen audiences. “Who didn’t leave New Orleans, even when it was clear that the hurricane would be catastrophic?”
“Stubborn folk,” someone usually says. Which is true, but I keep pressing. “Who else?”
“Poor people,” someone usually adds. Bingo. Bone analyses indicate that the majority of those left behind in Pompeii were women, children, and the elderly. Just like with Katrina, people may have wanted to leave but they likely didn’t have the means to—the money or horses/donkeys and carts—let alone anywhere else to go.
I also made the choice to make the male protagonist (the point of view alternates between girl and boy) a slave to show more than just the “rich patrician” point of view. The reason he’s a slave—and not the girl—I explain in this Huffington Post column (a conversation I typically skirt with teens!).
Occasionally, I come across a reviewer who is angry that I didn’t make my non-slave characters more adamantly anti-slavery. But here’s the thing—no one was anti-slavery in the ancient world! Slavery was so common, they couldn’t even conceive of a world without it. Even early Christians accepted it as “normal.” It wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries that people began to question the morality the practice.
I “could’ve” made my ancient characters be “all outraged” by slavery but I’d be wrong—and, worse, historically inaccurate. That in and of itself is a good launching point for discussing both ancient and modern slavery. Slavery may be outlawed globally, yet we still have more worldwide slaves (27 million) than existed in 1860. And here’s where looking at the past gives us even more insight into certain attitudes of today. The ancients believed that if you were a slave, it was somehow, at some level, “your own fault.”
Whether you were stolen into slavery or your people lost a war to Rome, it was all the same to them—there had to be something wrong with you or your people or the gods wouldn’t have fated slavery for you. And, if it’s your fault, how can they feel anything but disgust and disdain for you?
It’s a twisted bit of mental gymnastics we still see today, particularly when dealing with the poor. For many people, it is easier to blame the poor for their own problems rather look at the ways that our society traps some less fortunate in cycles of poverty. There are no easy answers but by comparing current attitudes against ancient ones, we can see how much we’ve changed—and how much we haven’t.
I don’t mean to make Curses and Smoke sound “heavy”—it’s essentially a love story that takes place under the shadow of Vesuvius. My secret hope, though, is that teen readers who come to the story for the fascination of a bygone era, come out the other side seeing themselves—and aspects of our own society—in new ways.
Vicky Alvear Shecter writes about the ancient world for midgrade and young adult readers. Her historical fiction novels for young adults include Cleopatra’s Moon and the recently released, Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii. For younger readers, she has a series on ancient mythology, called “Secrets of the Ancient Gods.” The first in the series, Anubis Speaks! was a 2014 Cybils Award finalist for midgrade nonfiction. Follow her on her blog!