Pompeii“They left the aquaduct two hours before dawn, climbing by moonlight into the hills overlooking the port–six men in single file, the engineer leading.” — Pompeii, Robert Harris

I have been reading to my son ever since he was born. Even now at 13, he seems to welcome the chance to fiddle with Legos and cuddle the cat while listening intently as I spin off a chapter or two each evening. One of our first “chapter” novel reads was Dragon Rider by Urusla LeGuin–which remains, he tells me, one of his favorite books though I’ve never seen him crack the cover on his own. Left to his own devices, he reads gobs of  sci-fi and all distopian teen fiction.

I am always trying to expand his horizons–get in some history or historical fiction, some classics, or some literary fiction with social consciousness themes.  One of our most enjoyable and educational reads was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; we used an old atlas and traced the Nautilus by Captain Nemo’s lat/long points around the world. It works! Except when they tunnel under Antartica….but then you can pick up on the other side.

As my son heads into his teen years, I am searching around for books that seem a bit older and more sophisticated but avoid language and topics that I don’t want to read aloud! Many years ago I  read Pompeii by Robert Harris and thought it might be suitable to introduce him to some Roman history. Plus it’s full of science about volcanos, and he is always curious to read and learn about anything scientific.

As it was my second reading, and I was taking it slower by reading aloud, I really had a chance to savor the atmospheric quality of the novel, which takes place over a period of just 48 hours prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that would bury the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79. As readers, we know a molten force is literally rising just below the surface of Mt. Vesuvius, but Pompeii was also baking that August under particularly hot and dry conditions. The novel shimmers with still, suffocating heat, blazing cloudless skies, and the hot dusty stones of the port cities ringing the sparkling Bay of Naples. Even chapters that take place at night, do so with strong descriptions of oppressive heat under bright moonlight.

Instead of focusing on the volcano directly, the story centers around a break in the cool, life supporting waters of the huge aquaduct, the Aqua Augusta, that provided water to thousands in the small towns on the bay, including Pompeii. The mystery to the characters in the novel is why the Augusta stopped flowing just as its head engineer disappears (we readers know at least one of these things has to do with the upcoming eruption), and it is the job of a young replacement engineer brought in from Rome to find the break and repair it before the citizens feel the thirst.

Many contrasts are made between heat, sun, sky, and fire and cool flowing water, pools, baths, fountains, and dark, deep cisterns in the book. Similarly, there is an intellectual dichotomy going on in the story as well. My son kept talking about how much he liked the character of the young engineer, Attilius,  because he seemed so scientific in the way he evaluated the problems in the water flow and repair of the aquaduct. The aquaduct broke (and Vesuvius would erupt) just as the raucous festival to Vulcan was getting underway. Many characters fearfully attribute the break and other volcanic phenomenon to Vulcan or supernatural occurrences, but Attilius dismisses such claims and analyzes the natural phenomena and physics of the system instead. This tension between reason (cool) and superstition (hot) follow throughout the novel.

To emphasize this even more, Harris begins each chapter (titled by the hour prior to the eruption) with a quote from a modern scientific work on volcanology describing a phase or quality of the eruption. If I’m not mistaken, I think that it is this eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that was described and recorded in detail by the Plinys (elder and younger, both characters in the novel) that formed the basis for the modern science of volcanology. Pliny the Elder was a navy admiral and prolific author of naturalist works who died in the very eruption he was the first to observe and record.

Unlike the medicore movie that came out recently by the same name, Harris’ Pompeii is a really good read, full of interesting period detail and characters based on famous Romans of the time. We learned something about Roman city governance, customs like dining and bathing, the social status of women in Roman society, and the impressive Roman building and engineering feats. There is a touch of romance, but not enough that a 13 year old boy would squirm with his mama reading to him, a bit of scientific mystery to puzzle out, and some heroic adventure. The only caution I would give to any parent considering letting their younger teen read this book is that it most definitely describes some colorful Roman sexual activities and attitudes. I chose to edit out some paragraphs or words as I read to my son, but there was not so much or of such content that the story was compromised for us in any way.

Now what book to read next together? I’d welcome any suggestions!


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