For those who were baffled, last week—yes, Rivers really did end A Voice in the Wind with Hadassah’s assumed death in the arena. In this edition of the book, though, Rivers includes the first chapter of the next book, Echo in the Darkness, which covers the ongoing story of Marcus, Hadassah, and Julia. A month ago I ordered the second book used on Amazon, to refresh my memory. I have since re-read it. I don’t think it would make a good review book, but after we finish the text included in my edition of Voice in the Wind, I do want to turn to a few points I noticed in Echo in the Darkness, and to give those who have followed this review series loyally a basic overview of what happens next.
This week, though, let’s turn to chapter one of Echo in the Darkness, which I do want to cover, and then to the Q&A with the author that is also included in the back matter of my copy of Voice in the Wind.
We open chapter one with Alexander Democedes Amandinus. Conveniently, he is already primed to the author’s perspective—and thus to listen to and adopt Hadassah’s beliefs and teachings. Have a look:
Alexander smiled wryly, aware that few who sat in the stands noticed what was obvious to him: that the stench of blood on the sand was no less strong than the stench of lust and fear surrounding everyone in the Empire. It was in the very air they breathed.
Alexander disliked the games and felt that something was off-kilter about both the Roman Empire and its inhabitants. How very convenient for Rivers. So why was Alexander at the games? You’ll find out in a moment. At this point it’s enough to know that he is not in the stands. Instead, Rivers tells us that he is standing at the Door of Death “waiting for the chance to learn more about life.”
While there, he had been struck with the full force of Hadassah’s mojo.
Today, though … today, something startling had happened. Something that had moved the young man as he’d seldom been moved before. And now he turned his eyes toward the fallen young woman and felt an inexplicable sense of triumph.
His hands gripped the bars as he looked out upon the sand where the woman now lay dead. She had walked out apart from the others, calm and strangely joyful. Alexander remembered how his attention had fastened on her immediately. As an aspiring physician, eh had been trained to notice anything unusual, anything different in a person, and he had seen in her something extraordinary … something that had defied description.
He could feel again the way his heart had pounded with each step she had taken. She had been rather plain in appearance, and yet there had been a radiance about her … an aura of light that he had felt rather than seen. It had been as though her open arms would reach out and enfold him.
What started as a joke about Hadassah’s “mojo” has turned out to be anything but. Rivers writes it into everything. It’s no wonder I found this book so appealing as a teen. I wanted to be like Hadassah. I wanted to walk into a room and have people notice me like that. In many ways that is a very human and not a very Christian dying-to-self sort of thing to want. Rivers’ books gave me a legitimate way to want the sort of popularity and recognition that so many teens want—and a way to obtain it. All I had to do is try to be like Hadassah, and I could have her mojo.
False hope, that one.
Just then, a screaming child ran by the iron-gridded gate where Alexander stood, a jewel-collared lioness in pursuit.
If the poor child had had some of Hadassah’s mojo, maybe she would have lived, too. Seriously, everything about having kids in there is messed up, as I went into some detail talking about last week.
Also—would the beasts criminals were thrown to in the arena have had jeweled collars? I feel like the answer is no. (And, as mentioned in the comments last week, individuals in these circumstances were typically actually tied up, to ensure that there was no attempting to escape.)
For as long as he could remember, he had heard the arguments in favor of the games. Those sent to the arena were criminals, he was told, deserving of death. He knew that the people who were on the sand now belonged to a religion that encouraged the overthrow of Rome.
Yet he could not help but wonder if a society that murdered helpless children should not be undone.
That last is a sideways reference to abortion in the modern U.S., by the way. It’s rhetoric abortion opponents use quite frequently—that a society that murders its youngest and most vulnerable children cannot survive.
As to the rest—I’m curious how common skepticism of the games was in Ancient Rome. Some googling suggests that criticism was rare. Yet Alexander walks into this chapter already skeptical. There’s another thing—since we’re not going to review this book in its entirety, I’ll let you know right off that Alexander does not have a philosophy. Rivers writes that he worships various gods of healing, though with some skepticism, but that’s as far as she goes.
For the Romans, the spot in the psyche that is today typically filled by religion was then filled by both religion and philosophy. Romans didn’t expect to gain their sense of meaning and purpose from their worship of and relationship to the gods. That came from their philosophy. Christianity combined the two in a way that was, in my understanding, fairly innovative. A man like Alexander would have had a coherent approach to life—a philosophy that gave him purpose and meaning. Decimus would have as well. But neither do.
There is more description, by the way, of the terror and screams of the small child sent to the arena with her parents, but I’m going to leave it out. Suffice it to say, she meets her end in that arena.
We learn that Alexander had studied anatomy and medicine under a learned teacher, but that he had “gone as far as he could in his studies with scrolls and illustrations” and needed to learn more through dissection.
Silently, Alexander cursed the Roman law that forbade dissection of the dead, thus forcing physicians into the grisly practice of working on those who were near death. And the only place one could do such a thing was at the games, where the injured were criminals.
And here we have it once again—a modern American dropped in the past without so much as a by your leave. Alexander’s sensibilities are modern. Would an aspiring young Roman physician have felt revulsion at the idea of vivisection? Or would he have seen it as a matter of course? The same goes for Alexander’s reaction to the games—in the Ancient Roman Empire, death and disease and dying would have surrounded people. People’s acceptance of the games may be partially explained by this fact. But again, that’s not what we get.
Alexander watches as bodies are dragged in off of the arena, the executions finally over. Alexander needs a body that is still living to dissect. Alexander scans the arena, and notices that there aren’t any lions by Hadassah. Watching from the gate, he thinks he sees a flicker of movement in her body, so he calls out that he wants to look at her body, as the various attendants bring the bodies in.
Hadassah is laid on a “dirty, bloodstained” table. Alexander pays a guard six sesterces and steels himself for what he is about to do. But when he opens the front of Hadassah’s tunic, he finds that her wounds are only superficial. Her face and neck are mauled, her right forearm is clawed and broken, and her thigh is badly wounded. But her torso—her bodily organs—are unscathed. Furthermore, sand had clogged her wounds, preventing her from bleeding out. Alexander realizes that to cut her open would be not to operate on the already dying but to kill.
Alexander freezes, unsure. Hadassah moans and opens her eyes briefly. That seals it for Alexander. “I’ll not risk the wrath of whatever god spared her life by taking it from her,” he says. He tells the guard that she is dead and that his slave is taking her out to dispose of her body. He makes some smalltalk with the guard to cover the slave’s exit with Hadassah’s body. He feigns boredom and says he is going to go buy some wine. He heads for his home, where the slave will bring Hadassah, and has to force himself not to hurry too obviously.
And here the chapter ends.
I’ll let you know upfront that infection does set in, as we would expect it to in these circumstances. Alexander later says repeatedly that Hadassah should have died. He states that infection was all up and down the wounds in her thigh, and that Hadassah prayed, and that the next day the infection was gone. Simply, gone. He had no explanation, and concluded that her god must have heard her prayer. Yet despite this act of healing, Hadassah’s leg never heals completely. She walks with a staff and a limp, and spends much of her time in pain.
Hadassah is also badly scarred. She covers her scars with a veil, and works with Alexander in his medicine practice by the baths, in a poor area of town—Alexander states at one point that he wants to learn more about all kinds of ailments, not only those that afflict the rich. Hadassah’s mojo serves Alexander well in his practice—she proves adept at healing both body and soul—and his practice grows and his fame rises.
We’re going to turn to Rivers’ Q&A next week, but I do want to pull one piece of it out first, as I think it’s relevant here:
Question: Did you ever consider ending the story differently? Do you think it would have been preferable for Hadassah to die than to live in constant pain and be crippled for life?
This is really the question we’re going with? Cool.
Answer: My first draft of A Voice in the Wind ended with Hadassah’s death. Karen Ball, my editor at the time, was so upset she said she wanted to throw the manuscript across the room! “You cannot let her die!” she said. She wanted me to carry on the story in another book. What could I do? I had done some research on the customs of that day, and I discovered there was a law against dissection (once a person was dead) but not against vivisection (if the person was still alive). So I actually had a historically accurate reason for Hadassah to have lived.
That actually helps this ending make more sense. I’d like to see that draft, because I’m curious where it left Marcus and Julia. We already know that both of them end up becoming Christians by the end of book two. But if this book was to be a stand-alone novel, and if it was to end with Hadassah’s death, were they both going to be left in their unbelief (and despair)? What was the moral of the original draft?
I am not an expert on this period, but my research in writing this post suggest that while there was a strong religious taboo against (and legal ban on) dissecting human remains, physicians learned about anatomy not by dissecting living bodies but by dissecting animals. A quick perusal of some scholarly blogs suggest that if vivisection of humans did occur, it was rare, and it wasn’t practiced in a room under the arena as bodies were removed from the fields during the games.
In Rivers’ work, the guards at the arena treat Alexander’s presence and purpose as a matter of course. We also receive some thoughts from Alexander about how he cannot go beyond paper illustrations without dissecting humans—and that means living humans. We receive no suggestion that he has dissected animals, or even thought about doing such a thing, despite that being the primary way physicians of his era learned about anatomy. We’re also told that his learned teacher prepared him for vivisection, teaching him to steal himself against any concern that the dying human, wounded in the arena (again, this was treated as a matter of course) would feel pain.
None of this is accurate. At all.
Here’s a question—why didn’t Rivers simply have God heal Hadassah? She could have been dragged from the arena dead or dying, and thrown in some pit, and then be healed miraculously by God and get up and walk away. It’s fascinating to me that that did not feel realistic enough to Rivers to include—but that having God heal Hadassah’s wounds of infection, while she was tended by a doctor, did seem realistic.
This could lead to a much larger and longer discussion of evangelicals and their approach to medical miracles, and this post is already long enough! I think I’ll dry the curtain here. Feel free to hash these ideas out further in the comments!
Next week we turn to Rivers’ Q&A.
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