According to many sources, August 24 is generally accepted as the day Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and killed many thousands of people living in the city of Pompeii. This tragic story has captured people’s interest and imagination for hundreds of years. I’ve visited Pompeii and it is a haunting and fascinating site – the perfect backdrop for an historical YA book.
Initially, the only YA book that I knew about Pompeii was Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter that came out earlier this year. In this novel, Lucia’s father, the owner of a gladiatorial school in Pompeii that needs money to expand the business, has betrothed her to a wealthy man old enough to be her grandfather. Lucia loves to read but her future husband doesn’t approve of women reading or studying. Lucia’s also interested in the world around her and its natural mysteries, like the frequent tremors and other odd phenomenon that are occurring in Pompeii. She’s in love with childhood friend & slave Tag, born of a noble family that was enslaved and stripped of its wealth. Tag’s a healer who wants to be a gladiator to earn enough money to win his freedom and escape the curse he bears. They plan to escape the city together but are betrayed to Lucia’s father by another fighter. Tag’s imprisoned by Lucia’s father just as Mt. Vesuvius is about to erupt. Will they be able to find each other again before the volcano destroys their whole world?
Shecter’s notes in the afterward refute the fact that Mt. Vesuvius erupted on August 24th. She believes more recent evidence found by archeologists that suggests the city was buried several months later because the victims found were wearing heavier clothing than what they’d be wearing in the summer. The remains of fruit found indicated it was later too – possibly October or November. For this reason, Shecter says she set the book in October of 79 AD. It’s fun to see that Pliny, the naturalist and author who wrote about the eruption of Vesuvius, is a character here too.
Vesuvius Rising (The Gilded Mirror #2) by Jocelyn Murray (2012) is a time travel tale featuring fifteen-year-old Anna who is swept back in time through the forces of a mysterious mirror to 79 AD. She finds herself in Pompeii just days before the deadly volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. As forces conspire against her, she struggles to escape the catastrophe that threatens the lives of thousands.
Kathryn Lasky’s The Last Girls of Pompeii (2007) is set in Pompeii in the summer of 79 AD and features two very dissimilar girls. Julia is the daughter of a wealthy ship-builder; Sura is an orphan. Julia has a withered arm (the Curse of Venus) but Sura is beautiful. Julia is free; Sura is her slave. Julia’s older sister Cornelia is about to get married so their well-meaning but desperate parents plan to send Julia off to the Temple of Damia and sell Sura to raise money for Cornelia’s expensive wedding. When Mt. Vesuvius erupts, Julia’s and Sura’s fates are forever altered, forcing them both to face the true meaning of freedom.
For slightly younger teens, Caroline Lawrence’s The Secrets of Vesuvius: The Roman Mysteries: Book II (2001) is an exciting story of what happens after twelve-year-old Flavia, her neighbor Jonathan, Lupus, 8, a slave without a tongue, and Nubia, a freed African slave rescue Admiral Pliny from a boating accident. Pliny rewards them for saving him and also urges them to try to figure out a riddle that will yield a great treasure if they can solve it. He tells them a blacksmith could help them solve it if they can locate him. As the four friends spend the summer in Pompeii with Flavia’s uncle, they find the blacksmith but he’s struggling to solve his own mystery of why he was abandoned by his family. Just as they are figuring out some of these mysteries, Mt. Vesuvius erupts and they have to run for their lives. Like the other books, Lawrence also includes descriptions of everyday life in Pompeii that offer great insights into what life was like then.
If you’d prefer to read a nonfiction account of the destruction of Pompeii, James M. Deem’s Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii (2005)(2006 Best Books for Young Adults) is the book for you. Hundreds of years after Mt. Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii under volcanic rubble, archaeologists excavating the site in the 1700s unearthed the expected buildings and artifacts but also surprisingly unearthed the bodies of those who died that left imprints in the ash like photographic images. Deems devotes a whole chapter covering Giuseppe Fiorelli’s revolutionary technique of creating plaster casts of the victims from the cavities left by their bodies. These imprints were used to recreate plaster casts of the victims to show their last moments and tell a bit about their lives. Deems includes numerous photographs that capture the horror of the volcano’s eruption and helps one imagine the daily life of the inhabitants of Pompeii.
As long as there are natural disasters like the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in which thousands of people lost their lives, like those in Pompeii, there will be books written about them, for those of us who like to read about them.
-Sharon Rawlins, currently reading The Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb