Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book Review: The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatly Snyder

This is a review with spoilers.

My dear MIL, who loves to send books to our daughters, has picked up on the fact that any book with a Newberry medal on the cover is probably a pretty good bet for something that we'll be pleased to have our kids read, so it was no real surprise when a used copy of "The Egypt Game" showed up in the mail. But something from my long gone days as an elementary school library aide (volunteer shelving slave) rose up to the surface with the title and author. Hadn't there been some sort of controversy at my little Christian school over this book? Occult something or another? For a conservative Christian school, ours really had a remarkable selection on the shelves, counting on parents to screen what their own kids checked out rather than heavily censoring what went onto the shelves in the first place. And after all, a Newberry book is usually a pretty good read--I decided that this was one that I wanted to read myself before passing it on to my nine year old daughter.

What I found, to my delight and consternation, was a book that didn't fit in to any of my preconceived slots. The book definitely deserved the Newberry honor that it received; from a literary point of view, everything about this book is excellent. Character development is realistic and subtle, and tied together with a strong plot. The writing is clear and interesting. The story involves April, a sixth grade girl in 1960's California who is dumped on her grandmother by a mother who isn't interested in having a child around. The grandmother and reader know that this is a permanent move for April, but April wants to believe that her mother wants her, waiting anxiously for infrequent postcards and accepting at face value thin excuses. At her grandmother's apartment building, April makes friends with Melanie and they discover a mutual love for "imagining" games. An additional mutual interest in the history of ancient Egypt and the availability of an almost private vacant lot lead naturally into "The Egypt Game," an extended reimagining and role-playing of life as high priestesses in ancient Egypt. They are joined by Melanie's tag-a-long four year old brother Marshall and--eventually--several other friends from the neighborhood.

So what do we have? An excellently written book in which children make diverse friends (good!), have active imaginations (good!), are vibrantly interested in real history (good!), and want to play out their interest (very natural) by recreating altars to Isis and Set and then developing and carrying out pagan rituals, sacrifices and mummification (WHOA!). Historically, the ancient Egyptians really did worship a wide variety of false gods. Pagan rituals really did dominate and heavily influence their lives.

Let's jump ahead a minute. There is no occult in this book. There is no implication that the kids actually awaken Egyptian gods. Late in the book there a couple of sort of creepy occurences when the kids start to wonder if they might have, but then (Scooby-Doo like) it's all revealed to have all been people doing tricksy things all along, and everyone is reassured that none of it was actually real and it was all just a game. The neighborhood bad guy is caught and April develops a better relationship with her grandmother, and it's all a nice almost-coming-of-age story about family and friendship, imagination and learning. At least, I'm sure that's how the author intended it.

Problem is, from a Christian point of view, what was actually real and what wasn't? Some of those kid-constructed pagan rituals looked . . . an awful lot like real worship. God has a lot of very pointed things to say in scripture about worshipping false gods. None of them are good. Additionally, there's a lot of confusion (even among adults! even in the church!) about the nature of worship and how we practice it and what it means.

As a Christian parent, trying to guide my children in holiness, trying to help them sort out what it means to live a life of worship, I can't imagine a situation in which I wouldn't slap my kids down hard if I found them playing "Pagan Rituals." There's just no way that it can be a good idea. I don't buy the line that reading about magic in stories is going to turn kids to witchcraft, or that kids will mindlessly mimic anything they find in a book. But the message of "The Egypt Game" is much more subtle and dangerous--none of it is real, and it's all in good fun. Because make no mistake, the kids have a great time and the game is a great game. The author is sure that most all kids would be better off if they were imaginative like this. Am I going to give this book to my kids to read? Maybe when they're thirty-five and raising my imaginative grandchildren.


Jeremy said...

"smack them down hard" metaphorically I hope.

Sara said...

um, yes. of course. :)

bearing said...

Oh, I don't know -- if you did it as a read-aloud you could provoke some good discussions. And there's a serious subtext that the children are driven to their imaginative play because their parents aren't really "there" for them, don't you think? A lesson perhaps?

Sara said...

As a read aloud, it might work better. I think there might be an interesting tension--I've found that listening to a book as a part of a group and reading it privately to be two very different experiences. And the themes of what we keep private and what we share with the "rest" of the world are very live in this book.

You're right that the parents are absent (most notably April's self-absorbed mother), but I don't think that "drives" them to imaginative play. Rather, these are children going to be drawn to story-making because . . . they are story-tellers by nature. The question then becomes, for us as sub-creators, how do we interact with the stories we tell ourselves?

Heidi said...

I found your blog on a search for "The Egypt Game Christian" when I had some serious reservations about having my daughter listen to the book on CD. I felt the same way you wrote about - that all was well and good until I heard some of the rituals that sounded an awful lot like idol worship and seemed too dangerous to toy with. I'm glad I had your perspective as well...the book is back at the library. The bottom line is that idol worship or anything that looks like idol worship is not entertainment and certainly not kids' play.

DC said...

Thank you for a thoughtful, well-written review. This is just the sort of engagement I'm always hoping to find on the internet but rarely do.

Reflecting on what you described from this book, I remember as a kid the same sort of playful, all-in-good-fun attitude toward Ouija Boards and Tarot Cards among the kids in my neighborhood. I was pretty aggravated with my parents at the time because they wouldn't let me participate. Now as a parent with kids of my own I'm very glad that they kept me from so doing.