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Pompeii and circumstance
on March 7, 2006
Having only just begun his examination of the ancient dead with, "Bodies From the Bog" (a title that bears more than a passing resemblance to a kitchy 1950s horror flick), Mr. James M. Deem returns to look at the ancient dead of an entirely new region. As a child I was fascinated by mummies and the bodies of human beings from so very long ago. History was never my favorite subject and often I found that unless I could see a person in the flesh (rotting, decomposing, flaking flesh though it might be) I was unable to understand how similar to us the people of the past were. Pompeii, naturally, is a fascinating subject in and of itself. How could it not be? You've three-dimensional images of people in the last throes of death. I challenge anyone to come up with anything half as gripping (i.e. feeding on our more macabre instincts) when talking about any other ancient civilization. With plenty of amazing photographs, clear concise writing, and a plot that will keep many a kid spellbound, this is probably one of the finest non-fiction titles to grace library bookshelves in years.
"On August 24, the last Tuesday that they would live in their town, the people of ancient Pompeii awoke to a typical hot summer's morning". And we're off! No long drawn out Preface on why Deem wrote this book or dull page long sermon on the history of archeology itself. Nope. Instead we are treated to a highly accurate encapsulation of the events that lead up to Mount Vesuvius erupting and the good people of Pompeii perishing. With some reliance on the accounts of Pliny Jr., Deem tells us what happened on August 24 and 25, A.D. 79. There's even a timetable of events marking the different stages in the eruption. With everyone dead and buried beneath different amounts of ash, Deem then looks at the consequential rediscovery of this once bustling town. We learn how in 1709 a group of diggers found the nearby town of Herculaneum and plundered it of its riches. Pompeii wasn't found until 1748 when discovering the city was something akin to a treasure hunt. For the tourists, skeletons found were set up in dramatic tableaux. Then, around 1860, our hero Guiseppe Fiorelli had the previously inconceivable notion that maybe someone should try preserving Pompeii and its bodies. When people came across hollow areas in the ash, it was Fiorelli who had the brilliant idea to pour plaster into the holes and create life sized statues of what the people in their last moments looked like. The rest of the book discusses the fate of the plaster casts, what we've learned about the residents of Pompeii, and the interesting stories found in the nearby town of Herculaneum. The book ends with the sorry state of current Pompeii excavation and a call for people to make note of the swift decomposition of what we've already found.
Knowing perfectly well that Pompeii alone does not a children's non-fiction text make, Deem's decision to talk about Herculaneum as well was an intelligent choice. Admittedly the book isn't subtitled, "Life and Death Around Mt. Vesuvius", but who cares? Herculaneum offers just as much useful information and rather exciting drama (provided, of course, by the skeletons) as the titular city itself. Most impressive though is Deem's writing. He never talks down to his audience, but at the same time he has an acute ear for timing. Some non-fiction books for kids are great but just go on and on and on. I loved "The Tarantula Scientist" by Sy Montgomery but it definitely could've stood "Body From the Ash"'s editor. No chapter in this book seems out of place or awry. It's a well-honed little series of images and words that will grip many an unsuspecting reader.
It seems to me that Deem must have carefully weighed just how grisly to get. For example, at one point we see a cast of a teenage girl taken from Oplontis, an area outside of Pompeii. The girl was made by pouring wax rather than plaster into the cavity. From that they made a mold and a final plaster casting. On the plus side, the technique is the most lifelike view of a victim of Vesuvius yet. On the down side, it's incredibly disturbing. According the photo credits hidden on the publication page, Deem took this picture himself as authorized by the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Environment. He must have taken very great care to give viewers a clear enough look of the body to let them know how gruesome and realistic it was. At the same time, he's far enough away and at an awkward enough an angle that child readers, for all they want to be, won't be too grossed out. By and large, the book is all about dying people, so there's not a whole heckuva lot you can do about that. Fortunately, each shot is tastefully presented while remaining exploitative enough for youthful palates.
And talk about stunning images. Some non-fiction texts skimp on the images. Deem went so far as to personally visit Pompeii himself and get permission to photograph buildings closed to the general public. He even got his hands on the Pompeii photography archive, thereby getting some pretty keen shots of early archaeological excavations and artifacts. Some are in color (as with the incredibly impressive image of the Herculaneum Ring Lady) and some in black and white but every single one is gripping. If you didn't want to go to Pompeii before reading this book, you may now simply from looking at the images.
But don't ask me. Hand this book to a kid assigned a non-fiction book for a school book report. Slyly slip it to the child looking for mummy books and who hasn't had their fill. Pompeii has many charms, but its greatest may be how kid friendly it is. Some parents may shy away from having their children deal with a subject so gruesome, but for all those budding forensic scientists out there, few books will satiate them quite as well as "Bodies From the Ash". Lively lovely work.