Mara Daughter of the Nile


Eloise Jarvis McGraw




Date Reviewed:

October 9, 2022

y sister read Mara Daughter of the Nile when she was a kid, and it remains one of her all time favorite books. I decided to read it as a senior citizen and see if had any appeal to someone my age. Mara is indeed an enjoyable read even for someone my age.

Mara is a high spirited Egyptian slave girl (approximately 15 years old), owned by the harsh jewel-merchant Zasha. Zasha is exasperated by Mara's willfulness, and beats her frequently. Nevertheless, Mara slips out into the city of Menfe, enjoying herself, cleverly stealing some bread, and cursing out (in Babylonian) an official who berates her. Mara's antics catch the eye of a couple of mysterious characters in the marketplace. One of these characters is Nahereh - a powerful noble who is close to the reigning pharoah, Queen Hatshepsut. Nahereh is frustrated because he knows that there are conspirators plotting to overthrow the rule of the Queen, but he cannot figure out how these rebels are communicating with Thutmose III. (Queen Hatshepsut assumed the throne as regent when Thutmose III was only 2 years old. Now Thutmose III is an adult, and he wishes to be pharoah. Instead, his aunt, Hatshepsut, remains on the throne. Even worse, Hatshepsut has brought in a barbarian woman from Canaan to be the wife of Thutmose III.) When Nahereh witnesses Mara's bold personality in the marketplace, including her sly thieving of bread and hearing her speak Babylonian, an idea pops into his head. Nahereh buys Mara from Zasha, and then tells her that she shall become the interpreter for Inanni, the Canaanite princess that has come to Egypt to be wed to Thutmose III. Inanni speaks Babylonian, so Mara will be placed within the palace, close to Thutmose III, and if she uses her wits, Mara will discover how Thutmose III communicates with his conspirators.

If Mara can discover who is Thutmose's messenger to those outside the palace, Nahereh promises her wealth and her freedom. Mara boldly accepts, and takes the heavy gold chain Nahereh offers her. Mara uses the gold chain to pay for passage aboard the Silver Beetle, which sailing the Nile to Thebes. While on board the ship, Mara overhears some secret talk between the ship captain and a handsome stranger who is also a passenger headed to Thebes. Almost immediately, Mara finds herself enmeshed in intrigued with the highest stakes.

Mara Daughter of the Nile was published in 1953, and yet Mara, a female character, is depicted as having adventures (typically, in books written in those years, it was the boys who had all the fun in books). Mara uses her quick wits in tight situations, she has courage when face to face with the most powerful people in Egypt. Mara also feels sorry for Inanni, the princess who is bewildered by the sophisticated culture of Egypt, she longs to return to the green hills of pastoral Canaan. The romance in the book seemed improbable to me, but Mara is a likeable character and the book has enough intrigue that it carried me through to the finish. The trade paperback edition I read is 355 quick pages.

One thing that bothered me about this book is that the characters pay for things with coins. I had read somewhere that Egypt did not have currency, instead, it operated as a barter economy. A quick internet search reveals that the first coins minted in Egypt were made around 500 B.C. The events in the novel take place about 1000 years earlier (Hatshepsut's reign ended in 1458 B.C.). Of course, Mara was written in 1953, and what I can discover in a few seconds on the Internet would have been a difficult task for anyone to research in those pre-digital days.

I was expecting read a big reveal of Mara's origins - that she was really a princess or something - how is it that an Egyptian slave girl has those startling blue eyes? How did Mara become fluent in Babylonian? Who taught her to read and write? No explanation is offered.

McGraw was awarded Newberry award three times for her stories, but surprisingly, Mara was not one of her award books. One of the three winners, The Golden Goblet, is also set in ancient Egypt, and it is available from our local library, so I will have to check that one out next.