Two friendships converged in a berry patch, and I was sent out to examine the moral worth of a book friendship.
My friend and I were swapping stories of our childhood reading habits. As Saskatoon berries fell into our pails and our mouths, we both confessed that we had been distraught on winter Sunday afternoons if we ran out of books, and that we had reread favorite books until the covers fell off. We also discovered that although we had both loved Mara, Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, neither of us had ever heard anyone else speak of it. After wondering why two teens, one a Catholic and one a Mennonite, would be so taken by a story set in ancient Egypt, we talked of other books.
Yet Mara, the pretty slave girl of Egypt, did not leave me so easily. To use the language of Wayne Booth in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, I once spent a great deal of time in her company. Friendships, including book friendships, Booth suggests, offer us three kinds of gifts: pleasure, profit, and the “kind of company that is not only pleasant or profitable, but also good for me.” So what gift had McGraw given me through the fictional Mara?
Book friends offer us pleasure, profit or gain, a ‘kind of company that is not only pleasant or profitable, . . . but also good for us, good for its own sake.’Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep
After all, she was nothing like me, nor did her circumstances resemble mine. An untameable slave, she was impudently self-confident and utterly unscrupulous, bent on looking after herself. Thanks to her cleverness and brazen charm, Mara became a double agent spy, purchased to seek out treason against the reigning Pharaoh Hatshepsut while choosing to carry messages for precisely those treasonous agents of Hatshepsut’s half-brother Thutmose, kept in virtual palace arrest.
The novel is plot-driven, suspenseful; betrayal by anyone would mean death for someone. Exotic location, jewels beyond description, romance, adventure: all the necessary ingredients of escape reading. Perhaps this book-friend’s gift was merely the pleasure of leaving, for a time, my own drab, narrow world.
That berry-picking conversation provoked a hasty and successful book hunt. My curiosity had been piqued: would Mara still hold my interest, now that I was grown up and educated enough to teach sophisticated literature in university English classes? Well . . . evidently the sophistication hadn’t taken. Once again I slid effortlessly down the rabbit hole of Mara’s ancient Egyptian world, and I cared as much about her eventual happiness and security as I had when I was fourteen. In fact, I still delighted in watching Mara secretly read forbidden books, engage in daring repartee, and invent creative lies for both her masters.
After rereading it yet again, I couldn’t help pondering the emotional processes at work here. Wherein lay the charm? It was true that I had once also secretly read forbidden books and told lies to cover certain activities, so that Mara’s utter lack of guilt might have been reassuring for me. But beyond that, what could this friendship have offered to me? It was time to abandon the reader’s initial naiveté and ask harder questions.
To begin with, I could at least look again at the novel’s underlying assumptions about gender roles. And then it was obvious that Hatshepsut, as a woman, was obviously less worthy of the throne than her brother, and that the handsome Lord Sheftu would retain all the real power while Mara would become his lady of leisure, suitably preoccupied with jewelry and costly linens.
In my teens, though, living among Mennonites typically suspicious of luxury, self-indulgence, and beauty, I had seen only hope in such a conclusion. Part of the novel’s allure lay in Mara’s ability, by will power and love, to achieve about as much success as was possible in a man’s world that, at its core, was not that different from my world after all, if one ignored the trappings of royalty and military aggression.
Even the religious devotion to and fear of the gods of Egypt, although I had understood little about such pagan beliefs and would have dismissed them as ridiculous, had I paused to think about them, were not that different from my own fearful attitudes. Desires and contingencies and impulsive actions played out against an unquestioned spiritual backdrop in my world and in Mara’s.
She, however, recognized that life was about love here and now, and was prepared to take risks that I could not have imagined. She could act decisively as I could not; what’s more, she was learning to put aside self-preservation for a greater good. Mara had become my friend because I felt I was a better person in her company, one of the qualities by which Booth suggests we should evaluate our book friends.
In any case, whether or not the plot was believable—I didn’t care if it was or wasn’t—whether or not the novel supported patriarchy, I saw Mara as the lovely fearless young woman that I wished I could be, clever enough to make a crucial difference in how the world unfolded, and beloved by the man she loved. Who wouldn’t want an ending like that?
Besides, without really noticing the novel’s moral underpinnings, I had been deeply gratified to see the former slave, now an aristocrat, negotiate for the freedom of another slave, and for the return home of a lonely alien woman caught in palace intrigue. Mara understood more now than just the value of freedom and personal integrity; she, the former waif and guttersnipe, had also grasped what home meant and how important it was to belong and to foster belonging.
That was what my book friend, my other self, was trying to teach me all those long years ago when all I had looked for was escape.
Originally published in Prairie Messenger, August 31, 2016.