original copyright 1955 Reprint 2005, Hillside Education, 274 pp. softcover
If you or your children only pick books by their action-packed covers, depicting the tense drama of soldiers engaged in battles, you might be missing out on some fantastic stories, including Word to Caesar. Although the cover appears rather ordinary (plain purple with an inset of an Ancient Roman, marble relief), once the reader cracks open the book, the excitement is non-stop. Trease is a master storyteller, ending each chapter with a cliffhanger, urging the reader on.
Set during Imperial Rome, Paul, a young boy, flees for his life when barbarians raid the Roman camp his father commands in Northern England. Wounded, exhausted, and orphaned, he barely makes it on the last boat leaving a nearby harbor. With the help of Lucius Fabius Severus, a Roman exile, he begins a new life. Out of gratitude for Severus helping save his life, Paul wants to reinstate Severus’ good name. But he must travel the length of the Roman Empire to do so, escape the clutches of wily villains, and speak with the Emperor Hadrian. Will he be able to accomplish such an insurmountable task? Urged on by the memory of his father’s high standards of conduct, Paul does not give up hope and always seeks to perform the noble action, even if it means risking his own life.
Although the main character is a boy, girls will enjoy this fast-paced adventure as well, especially when Severus’ daughter joins in the mission to clear her father’s name. A real –page-turner, both my son and I polished it off in a few days. We liked it so much, that my husband read it to the rest of the children. They too clamored to read another chapter and another.
More than a thrill-a-minute story, the reader learns a bit of Ancient Roman history, putting on flesh to those crumbing ruins. While the characters (except for Hadrian) are fictitious, the places in this story are real. A tourist can visit the remains of the Roman camp of Hardknot, as well as Bath and Ravenglass. In Italy, the farm in the Sabine Hills also still exists. During this time in history, the Roman Empire, for the most part, was peacefully united. Much of the every day life portrayed in the story was typical.
For those who would like to incorporate this book into their schoolwork, at the end of each chapter are discussion and comprehension questions, designed to get the reader to think inside the author’s head as well as think about the historical setting. There are also suggestions for essays. I particularly like the idea of tracing Paul’s trip from England to his final destination. This edition also includes maps, a picture of a bust of Hadrian, a picture of Hadrian’s tomb, historical notes, and a glossary with explanatory notes.
Character formation comes in many forms. Children need to read their catechism, see moral actions performed by those around them, and read the lives of the saints. In addition to all this, good works of fiction expose children to honorable characters striving to do the right thing even as other characters, in sharp contrast, are carrying out their evil misdeeds. Good fiction mimics life. What better way to expose children to admirable virtues than by reading Word to Caesar, a fast-paced, thrill-a-minute page-turner, where Paul, a young boy, suffers trials and tribulations, yet remains a true hero performing noble deeds. The absorbing, suspenseful plot is sure to capture your children’s attention and leave them wanting more.
reviewed by Elizabeth Yank
Available from All Catholic Books