Aztecs, Picts and some cook and bull stories

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Tom Deveson enters the narratives of a series which makes tales of the past vivid, whether colourful legend or domestic drudgery. Here are six little books written in the tradition if not with the narrative skill of Geoffrey Trease. Children of about 11 years old are caught up in the alarums and excursions of past events, each of which happens by good fortune to exemplify a (pre-Dearing) core study unit of national curriculum history. The stories are carefully illustrated and diligently researched.

Theseus celebrates the legacy of legend rather than the heritage of Periclean Athens. We meet the hero as a troubled boy before following him to Knossos, the killing of the Minotaur and the abandonment of Ariadne. The language is sometimes mathematical rather than mythical - "it was a huge beast, more than three metres long". But it's a useful reminder that we are in debt to the Greeks for poetry as much as for politics and philosophy.

The Lost Purse evokes the mood of Auden's Roman Wall Blues rather than of Kipling's fatalistic Parnesius. The children here are surrounded by old sweats from the corners of the Empire, but themselves inhabit a civilian world of baths, shops and craftsmen. Their searches bring them naturally into contact with the Wall as military miracle, its topography and environs. There's an effective scene where an officer describes the mile-castles, towers, oaken doors and solid lines, seen from the North after a campaign. Readers with Celtic forebears might jib at the casting of Picts as treacherous barbarians, but the book is informative and lively.

"Barbarians are us" might be the slogan for The Fall of the Aztecs. The conquering Spanish civilisation is seen though the eyes of young people in Tenochtitlan, and it looks both tawdry and bloody. We learn about Aztec education, irrigation schemes, marketing laws, and witness Cortes' men as bringers of death. There is a well-drawn account of the approaching end and loss of faith in the hapless Montezuma. The disease and destruction are not concealed, and the final horror of the massacre at the feast of Huitzilopochtli sets the seal on an all too plausibly grim story.

Toby's Gold brings an orphan boy to the village of Eyam during the great plague. He becomes part of the local quarantine policy, makes friends with a local girl and falls under the spell of a scientistalchemist. Experiments with two-headed bats and pieces of lapis lazuli remind us that the Enlightenment was originally enfolded in obscurantism. The reality of death is never far away, but nor is the gold of the title - not money but a chance to study in Germany and turn base superstition into precious learning.

The upstairs-downstairs of The Kitchenmaid takes 11-year-old Mary into a new and mystifying world of skillets, sweetbreads and tarragon. Her eyes are also opened to social inequalities: the daughter of the house had a brooch costing four times her annual wage and the shadow of the workhouse looms over hard-pressed Cook. Children will learn a lot from these animated pages, and Mr Portillo would too.

Another girl is at the centre of We'll Meet Again. The bombs fall and destroy, Arthur Askey and George Formby are on the wireless and black-market meat is a preoccupation with many neighbours. Once again, real and horrible death is not hidden - the survivors of air-raids are not to be appeased with mere cups of tea and a Vera Lynn song. While authentic details sometimes appear from conscientious duty rather than as a flowering of the story, the book, like its fellows, gives a pleasing vividness to the facts of history.


The Story of Theseus. By Andrew Mathews 602 25976 2. The Lost Purse By Meredith Hooper 602 25977 0 The Fall of the Aztecs. By Anthony Masters 602 25978 9. Toby's Gold. By Jan Dean 602 25979 7 The Kitchenmaid. By Angela Bull 602 25980 0. We'll Meet Again. By Sam McBratney 602 25981 9 Ginn Evaluation Pack (1 of each story) Pounds 16

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