Wednesday, July 28, 2010

oracle by jackie french leads young readers to historical fiction via adventure

Jackie French is an award-winning children's author from Australia, who has made a name for herself with a number of illustrated books for younger readers. Oracle, for children aged 10 to 14 years, is her first step into the slightly older age group and she's handled it nicely.
Set in Mycenae in 1200BC, Oracle follows the story of a sister and brother, born into a primitive farming village, but destined for greater things.
When Thetis is born, her brother Nikko rescues her from being abandoned on the mountain by their father; a girl-child is an unwanted extra mouth to feed. From that day forward, Nikko is her protector, likewise tarnished with the brush of having cheated the gods of a death.
Brow-beaten by the village, Thetis remains mute until the age of five when suddenly she becomes able to speak – unfortunately she can only speak the truth, much to the concern of her parents.
So when their parents and the village elders see a way to get rid of the pair in exchange for escaping the wrath of the Mycenae King, the siblings are bundled off to the city to be court entertainers.
Becoming favourites, Thetis continues to remain mute until she utters a dreadful prophecy and dooms them all.
French's version of the founding of the Oracle at Delphi – which the book is based on – is touched by clever involvement of science and skirts the mystical and mythical, while at the same time creating a sense of wonder.
Interestingly, the children – especially Thetis – come across as being so much wiser than the adults that rule their lives. The smart inclusion of Euridice, a "horse dancer" who can ride like a man and use a bow just as well, reinforces French's feminist version of ancient Greece.
In fact, Nikko seems almost a secondary character, certainly he seems weak when compared to his younger sister.
Nikko becomes enamoured of their luxurious life, he is the support for Thetis in her performances and not the star of the show, he's also relatively ineffectual in protecting her after she grows up and becomes, very much, her own woman.
The obvious sub-plot – little girls can grow up to be powerful women and can do anything a boy/man can – is easily read by adults.
However, the targeted age group will most likely just read Oracle for what it is; a rollicking adventure tale set in ancient times.
French has cleverly included a "scientific" explanation for the visions seen by the first Oracle of Delphi and her descendants; she also describes how being a priestess was a way women escaped from the oppression of their male relatives.
Oracle has also been turned into teaching materiel for Australian schools, with the publishers providing extensive notes on how to use the book in the classroom. Obviously the best way to get book sales is to ensure it's required reading by every Australian school kid.
Still, Oracle is well-written, with strong central characters and enough historical detail to ensure authenticity; the aftermath of a natural disaster is particularly well done – influenced, perhaps, by the recent occurrence of similar things in the real world.

Oracle by Jackie French is published by Angus&Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, and is available from good book stores and online.


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