Monday, May 24, 2010

Book review: The Golden Bull by Marjorie Cowley (Charlesbridge, 2008)

One of the best things about good historical fiction is its ability to draw us into other countries and other times that we may know little to nothing about. I will admit that I don't know much about ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) beyond what I learned when I took college "Western Civ" (as we called it back then) quite a few years ago. So I was delighted to travel to this exotic time through Marjorie Cowley's engrossing novel The Golden Bull. Cowley has taught prehistory to school children from first grade to high school for many years, but didn't begin writing for children until her 60's. Her first two books focused on prehistoric times, but The Golden Bull fills a special niche by focusing on Mesopotamia, an area covered in 6th grade history here in California.

Times are hard in the countryside where our main character, 14-year-old Jamar, lives with his sister and family; crops are failing because of a long-lasting drought and there is not enough to eat. Hoping to save the children from famine, their parents send them to the city of Ur, where Jamar will be the new apprentice to Sidah, a master goldsmith for the temple of the moon-god. But his sister, a gifted but untrained musician, is not wanted in Sidah's household. Jomar takes quickly to assisting the goldsmith with crafting a magnificent gold and lapis bull which will embellish a special lyre to be used in the temple. But will his sister, too, find a place in the city? When she is accused of stealing a valuable lapis bead, she must face a terrible test of determining guilt or innocence--being thrown into the water of the sacred Euphrates river, a river whose existence was as critical to this region as the Nile to Egypt.

Cowley peppers her fast-moving story with many historical details about life in the era, as well as including an author's note which explains how what we know about the period is based on the work of archaeologists who have uncovered ruins and every day objects. I especially liked that the golden bull of the title as well as other items described in the text are actual treasures found in a burial site in Ur. Obviously these items sparked Cowley's creative imagination and led to the creation of this well-researched story.

Recommended for grades 5-8.

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