Book review: Secret of the Scribe
I have always loved to supplement our history studies with historical fiction. I found picture books and novels aplenty when we were studying Greece and Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, or the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. But ancient Sumer? The closest I could get was the story of Gilgamesh, but it’s an epic, not a novel, and not nearly so appealing to eight- to twelve-year-old girls!
Happily, both girls and boys alike will delight in Secret of the Scribe, the first historical novel about ancient Sumer I’ve seen. Author Jennifer Johnson Garrity transports the reader back 5000 years to the time of Abraham and the bustling city of Ur. Told in first person, it’s the story of a young girl, Tabni, who grows up in comfort as a slave to a Sumerian queen—until a great calamity forces her to flee the palace by night and make her way into the world alone.
Don’t we love The Boxcar Children and My Side of the Mountain, where the courageous protagonists must live resourcefully on their own? This universally appealing theme appears in Secret of the Scribe as well. As the young scribe Tabni weaves her narrative, the reader journeys with her by boat down the broad Euphrates River to the Sumerian trade center of Ur, where we experience both the grandeur of the gleaming ziggurat and the stench of narrow back alleys.
Tabni’s tale draws us in. We feel her grief and hunger as she finds herself homeless in a new world. We discover her pluck and courage as she forms a daring plan while living alone in secret. And we taste Tabni’s fear of vengeance from the many gods she tries desperately to appease.
In true “historical novel” fashion, Secret of the Scribe teaches the reader about life and customs in Ur—how people in this ancient civilization lived, ate, dressed, worked, and worshipped. Italicized words sprinkled throughout the book point to a glossary of unfamiliar terms, making it easy for the teacher or homeschooling parent to incorporate vocabulary into their Sumerian studies.
Secret of the Scribe would also make a great springboard into arts and crafts. The book introduces students to Sumerian trades such as weaving, metalwork, jewelry-making, and pottery, opening up all sorts of possibilities for accompanying projects. Trained as a scribe, Tabni writes on clay tablets, suggesting a project that dovetails art with learning about Sumerian cuneiform.
I’m so pleased to have discovered Secret of the Scribe, published by BrimWood Press. Though my own kids are grown and gone, this little novel will meet a tremendous need for those who hope to use historical fiction to broaden their children’s understanding of ancient Sumer.