Review: Mara: Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Mara: Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw was first published in 1958 1953, and as far as I know it has never been out of print. This popular young adult novel, one of my childhood favorites, should also engross adult readers who are looking for a novel about ancient Egypt with a realistic setting and unique characters. I've read several more recent novels that take place in ancient Egypt, and they don't stand out like this one does.

Mara is the story of the titular blue-eyed slave girl, a literate and highly intelligent 17-year-old with a flair for sarcasm. Bought by a nobleman because of her noble appearance and ability for mimicry, she is assigned to the royal palace in the guise of a Babylonian interpreter for the prince's Syrian bride. Her real mission is to spy on the prince to uncover plots intended to depose Queen Hatshepsut and raise the prince himself to the throne.

However, Mara finds herself accidentally tangled up in the coup itself when she is also recruited by Sheftu, one of the prince's men, who believes her to be nothing more than a runaway slave. Mara decides to play both sides to her own advantage as a double agent, but becomes conflicted when she feels herself falling for Sheftu and beginning to agree with his cause.

I have always had just a few complaints about what is truly an amazing novel. The dialogue, especially between Mara and Sheftu, has the tendency to switch back and forth between "thee" and "you," sometimes in the same sentence. This can be rather distracting, and I think such archaic language should have been gotten rid of. The characterizations are almost all great, except for Hatshepsut. Disclaimer: I did a report on Hatshepsut in sixth grade and I've been a huge fan ever since. McGraw depicts Hatshepsut as a spoiled woman who is perfectly happy to let the whole country go to pot so long as she can build grandiose monuments in her name. How McGraw's Hatshepsut ever came to power and managed to keep it, I'll never know. The real Hatshepsut was a politically shrewd and highly intelligent woman who ruled as queen regent for the young Thutmose III for several years before declaring herself pharaoh, apparently without Thutmose's objection. And, unlike in the novel, she ran the country very well and brought about great economic prosperity. In Mara she is reduced to little more than an evil stepmother. In McGraw's defense, this was actually the popular view of Hatshepsut in the Egyptological community at that time. Still, I wish she had fleshed out the queen's character more. Hatshepsut has a great speech the last time we see her at the end of the book, a very dignified and proud speech, but with only a few pages left it's too late to prevent the character from being one-dimensional. The main problem is that we never get to hear Hatshepsut's side of the story. We are never told her motivations by the woman herself, and that's a pity.

If you read the story, there's something a bit confusing you might notice. Hatshepsut and Thutmose III are said to be half-siblings, the children of Thutmose I. So where, you might be asking, is Thutmose II? Nowhere in this novel, at any rate. Thutmose II was actually Hatshepsut's half-brother (and husband), while Thutmose III was her nephew, her brother-husband's son by a concubine. Again, this is not entirely McGraw's fault; Egyptologists used to be very confused about the relationships and regnal order of these three.

These are my only real complaints (well, these and the fact that the ancient Egyptians didn't actually use coins, they bartered). I highly recommend this book! Five out of five stars.

Now, just for fun and just because I love this book so much, I'm going to post who I think should play each of the important characters, should Hollywood ever decide to film this neglected gem.

Freida Pinto. I've only ever seen her in Slumdog Millionaire, but she's beautiful and as far as I can tell she's very talented. Older than seventeen, but I think she could pass pretty easily. She played an 18-year-old in Slumdog. She'd need blue contacts, of course.

Ryan Gosling. Gosling is such a versatile actor, which is why I think he'd be perfect to play Sheftu, that man of many disguises.

Salma Hayek. I really couldn't imagine anyone else as the icy Egyptian queen. She could also lend some complexity to what is right now a somewhat one-dimensional character.

Nikki Blonsky. She played the plus-size Tracy Turnblad in the Hairspray musical movie. Quite pretty and the right weight and coloring to play the Syrian princess.

John Rhys-Davies. While I was reading the book this last time, I kept seeing this actor as Nekonkh in my mind's eye.

Ryan Reynolds. It's not a huge part, but I could see him as the powerful, caged king.


  1. Great blog!
    I have been an MDOTN fan for many years, though the characters in my mind look nothing like any actor today.
    There's also some fanfics for this in Perhaps you would care to write one yourself? :D

  2. Thanks for commenting! I don't write fanfic, or read it very much, though I'll have to check out the site to see if there are any good ones. I haven't been in a long time.

    However, I would love to write a screenplay for MDOTN if anyone in Hollywood would be interested...

  3. I always wondered if Sheftu ever ended up being eaten by crocodiles...

  4. Nope, he is alive - and happily married :D - in the end.

  5. So long as he keeps the amulet on I guess he's okay...haha.