In Amber and Clay, award-winning children’s author, Laura Amy Schlitz reaches new heights as she champions the most urgent plea of our crisis-ridden times— the Sokratic call to the examined life — “If you don’t think about your life/that’s no life for a man.” These words, etched on a broken piece of pottery, dated 400 BCE, begin her story, and echo Sokrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
In the opening salvo, Hermes, the messenger god and narrator of the story, takes center stage. Anticipating the reader will be daunted by the book’s 500 pages, he shouts out, “NO. Don’t put down the book —/ relax. This book is shorter than it looks.” And, indeed, Amber and Clay becomes fast-paced reading primarily in verse. Hermes, both flippant and serious, and always endearing, counsels readers: “I bring you a story that tells of the quick and the dead: the tale of a girl as precious as amber, the tale of a boy as common as clay. The meaning, the moral, is up to you…”
With striking originality and imaginative power, Schiltz invokes Hermes and his brethren gods in enlivening new guises as she brings to life ideas as vital today as in antiquity.
The author focuses her lens on the lives of Rhaskos, an enslaved Thracian boy, and Melisto, a child from a wealthy Athenian family, both thwarted by circumstance and struggling to break free. She approaches the story in an untraditional yet masterfully orchestrated performance of historical fiction in which she breathes life into 5th century BCE through poetry and prose, 18 artifacts (each foreshadowing the narrative that follows), elements of Greek drama, the paranormal (ghosts and spirits), and Sokrates and his philosophy. She flawlessly creates an intimacy and authenticity of voice whether god or human, mythical or real.
Schlitz’s portrayal of Sokrates and his influence on Rhaskos becomes more than simply a cursory introduction to the philosopher as the old man and the boy grapple with the meaning of friendship and such questions as “What accounts for “the pull of friendship?” and “Is there anything everlasting, unchangeable,/ any absolute beauty or goodness?” Readers might find themselves drawn into their discussions and might even challenge Sokrates’s belief that “…no man would ever do wrong, if he were not ignorant.”
Through Rhaskos, too, Schlitz reveals perhaps the strongest current in the book, the origins and arduous challenges of the creative process and what it takes not only to become the artist of his own life but perhaps the anonymous horse painter of antiquity. As he grows, Rhaskos’ search for art and beauty becomes for him a bulwark against adversity. In an intense segment, Rhaskos and Hephaistos, his mentor god, are brought together in a stream of inner thoughts beautifully synchronized. Hephaistos, the artist god, and Rhaskos, the aspiring artist, speak in alternating voices as the demands of the creative process are revealed.
The artifact of a necklace strung with palmettes and an amber head of a sphinx introduces the reader to Melisto. In an embattled scene with her mother, Melisto, afraid of falling, impulsively grabs on to the necklace around her mother’s neck, “her fingers crooked like claws,” breaking the cord as the pieces fall to the floor. She is rebellious and feral, and wounded and confused by the cruelty of an angry, self-indulgent mother. Melisto is destined to serve the goddess Artemis, as a “bear” in a mysterious “bear cult” in Brauron, in an honored rite of passage, but not before she comes under the care of Rhaskos’ mother for whom she feels abiding love.
Through all the characters on Schlitz’s stage, the essential nature of the examined life is laid bare: the age-old quest for truth, the capacity to ask questions and think critically about oneself and one’s experiences, and to climb the demanding ladder toward arete (ἀρετή), the kind of excellence that results in goodness and prompts one to revere life, and persevere against adversity.
The author’s tone and depth of meaning transform the narrative into a book of wisdom, a timeless morality tale, as insights and understandings erupt on its pages. Sokratic vision haunts the narrative as Schlitz breathes new life into Sokrates that will keep her book and the wise old philosopher alive for generations to come.
Schlitz, winner of the John Newbery Medal and several other prestigious awards, has written perhaps her most important book. It’s not uncommon for writers to look to the ancient Greeks for inspiration, but in Amber and Clay, Schlitz has created something extraordinarily unique – a remarkable muse-inspired masterwork of the imagination. Through Hermes she suggests that it can be read for sheer pleasure, no strings attached; it teaches itself— and part of the pleasure just might be to think about what it all means.
Barbara Harrison, PhD, Greek-American educator and author, is founding director of The Examined Life: Greek Studies in the Schools, and author of Theo, about the impact of World War II on an aspiring young Karagiozis puppeteer.