Pharoah’s Daughter: A Novel of Ancient Egypt by Julius Lester, Harcourt Brace, $17
What if the sister of Moses who hides in the bulrushes and watches at the Nile was not Miriam? For his retelling of the Moses story, Julius Lester discovered that Miriam is not actually mentioned by name until she leads the Israelite women in song and dance at the Red Sea. Who then, he wonders, is the sister who watches over Moses in the basket? Thus emerges Almah, older sister of Aaron, Miriam and Moses. It is through her sharp eyes and witty voice that Lester stunningly retells the Exodus saga in Pharaoh’s Daughter.
Strong-willed and passionate twelve-year-old Almah is an enigma to her mother, Yocheved, a devout woman who believes change will come when Ya ordains it. Only Amram, Almah’s father, is able to see that the girl’s fascination with the world beyond the slave settlement of Goshen may be a gift rather than a danger; he teaches her Egyptian and encourages her to always use her eyes and her mind. When Almah encounters Meryetamun, the Pharaoh’s favorite daughter, at the banks of the Nile, her life changes forever, subsequently changing the lives of all the Hebrews.
Almah accompanies Moses and Yocheved to the palace, acting as a translator. She grows close to Meryetamun and eventually to the Pharaoh, and thrives as she never had in Goshen. Her interactions with the other characters speak to the traditional story, the historical period, and the strengths and frailties of human nature. In particular, the relationship between Almah and Yocheved is both beautiful and painfully familiar, as we watch Almah struggle between finding the path she knows is hers and gaining the love and approval she longs for from her mother.
Few readers, regardless of age, will fail to recognize parts of themselves in Almah’s alienation from her family and painful search for belonging, Meryetamun’s confusion as she begins to feel more Hebrew than Egyptian, and Moses’s anger and frustration as he, too, struggles to discover where he belongs.
Lester has written a book that is twice-magical: not only has he created a fabulous and fantastic retelling of a story that was pretty fabulous and fantastic to begin with, but he has made his characters leap into our lives not only as historical figures, but as contemporaries. Lester inspires the reader with the desire to find and fulfill one’s own role in the Divine Plan.
Almah is a heroine worth knowing, and Pharaoh’s Daughter is sure to inspire questions, discussion, and “fact-checking” trips to the Bible, as well as empathy, laughter, and an unsuppressible joy in life.