Karen is a young British girl, about the same age as the author, with a talent for art. One day she is swept back in time to the age of the Roman Empire under the reign of Nero when she finds an old bronze mirror on a deserted beach and gazes into its corroded surface. She is discovered by a Roman patrol whose Centurion takes her for a runaway slave and places her temporarily in his household until inquiries can be made.
When no one claims the girl, she is sold to a slaver and placed aboard a ship destined for Rome. There, she befriends other young slaves and wonders what will happen to her once they reach their destination.
|Roman coin bank depicting a beggar girl. 25-50 CE.|
Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch.
In Rome, she is purchased by a wealthy Roman family and is charged with the care of the family's children. When the mistress of the house later discovers Karen's talent for art, she orders Karen to paint murals on the walls of the villa in addition to her child care duties. Karen enjoys her work so doesn't seem to mind her role in ancient society and befriends some of the other household slaves, discovering one of them is a member of the new Christian cult. She asks to attend some of their meetings and she is welcomed into the group. She then falls in love with one of the other young Christian slaves named Kleon.
One day a fire erupts in the city and soon many of the buildings surrounding the villa where Karen lives are threatened by flames. Karen, remembering her Roman history, is terrified because she knows the Christians will be blamed for the fire and brutally persecuted.
She warns her friends that they will be blamed for the conflagration but, as slaves, they fear severe punishment if they are caught trying to flee. Finally, she convinces them to flee to the catacombs. But an angry mob discovers the entrance to the catacombs and begins searching its dank recesses looking for the "arsonists".
Will Karen escape persecution and find her way back to Britain and her own time?
Reading this book, I was impressed with this young author's skilled handling of dialogue. She also seemed to have a good grasp of Roman culture and seemed to know quite a bit about the layout of ancient Rome, too, as evidenced by references to particular gates of the ancient city.
Her primary shortcoming, as an author, was her naivete about the brutality of daily life for slaves and other members of the lower classes in Roman society. Her heroine was actually considered a fully mature woman at that point in time and it would be quite a stretch to believe that she could be found by a group of Roman legionaries and deposited untouched into the care of her new master's household slaves. Furthermore, she manages to remain chaste despite her sale to a slaver, a long sea voyage, and purchase by a Roman master, seemingly content with the attentions of his own wife.
Bronze Bust of a Gallo-Roman Youth
wearing a hairstyle fashioned after the
emperor Nero 60-70 CE. Photographed
at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch.
But, I can vaguely remember being 14-years-old myself and innocent about gender relations at that age, so I can certainly understand this aspect of the story.
The "Ben-Hur" approach to ancient Christianity is also understandable since this book was written in 1966 by an imaginative young girl who was probably as enthralled with Charlton Heston's portrayal of the Judean prince at that time as I was.
She also unknowingly compressed historical events surrounding the Great Fire. The Christians were not immediately blamed for the disaster. They were eventually selected as probable perpetrators after the populace began voicing their suspicions that Nero himself started the fire to clear out the center of Rome for his new Golden House.
Still, I think young Lynne Ellison could have blossomed into a very good author with more experience. Sadly, I understand this was her one and only published effort.
I would recommend to the publisher, however, that more care be taken with proofing future releases. The copy I received, although a commercial release complete with cover and illustrations, was filled with typos and even missing words and phrases. It was as if an old manuscript was simply scanned, OCRed and sent to press without any human intervention. Even young authors deserve a publisher's respect for quality in the output of the final product.