Revising Leah

August 20, 2008

Things I Like #2: Leah’s Report Revisited

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:29 pm
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[ATTENTION GOOGLE SEARCHERS: Welcome! This is a blog about a young adult novel titled Leah which I am revising with the intent of republishing sometime in 2009. If you’ve found this page while searching for information about Egypt or the Egyptian pharaohs, you will find a short essay on that topic in the passage below. While the information in Leah’s report is, to the best of my knowledge, factually accurate, this blog entry really isn’t the best source of information if you are writing an essay or researching a report. Google isn’t the best way to find information for school either. What you might try is visiting the Wikipedia pages for “Ancient Egypt” or “Pharaoh” and then scroll to the end of the page until you find the section titled “Sources and External Links.” There, you’ll find a list of websites which should offer good information for you to use. Don’t forget to acknowledge your sources in your essay!]

One of the things that I’m happiest about in the new draft of the novel is what I did in the scene where Leah and her partners present their history reports. In the 1996 draft, I encapsulated Leah’s entire report in a short paragraph. This time around, I wrote a report for her and let her read it to her class. Public speaking is terrifying for most people, but it is especially terrifying for someone like Leah:

It was now Leah’s turn, but first she waited for David to introduce her. “And next,” David said, “Leah Nells will tell us about some of the major pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Leah?”

On weakening knees, Leah took a small step forward and held up her report so she could read from it. Her fingers trembled but she tried to hold them steady so she could read the page. She took a breath and said, “I am going to talk about the Egyptian Pharaohs.” She realized that her voice was barely more than a whisper, so she cleared her throat and tried to speak up. “The pharaohs were the kings of Egypt and they ruled in families called dynasties. The pharaohs were not the only — were not only the political rulers of Egypt, but they were also the religious rulers as well. Were — they were treated like gods by their people and it was believed that when they died they went to live with their gods in the afterlife. Most pharaohs were men, but there were some women who were pharaohs too.” There was a sound of rustling in the classroom. In spite of her attempt to speak up, Leah’s voice could only be heard by those students sitting in desks close to the front of the class. Mr. Simmons, leaning against his own desk several feet away, stood up and took a step closer so he could hear what she was saying.

Leah didn’t notice any of this, though, because all of her attention was focused on the paper she was holding. She continued: “Three of the most famous pharaohs were Ramesses the Second, Tu-Tuten-Tutenkhamun, and Cleopatra. Ramesses the Second, also known as Ramesses the Great, was Egypt’s most famous and powerful pharaoh. He was the pharaoh for sixty-six years and he is the pharaoh who Moses fled from in the Bible. He . . . constructed a lot of famous buildings and monuments that still stand today.”

Behind her, Heather and Melanie were trying hard not to laugh. They could hear the nervousness in their partner’s voice, and they could see that the class was having trouble hearing her. The two girls stole glances at each other  and smiled but otherwise they controlled themselves. “Tuten-Tutenkhamun, also known as King Tut, wasn’t really that important, but we know a lot about him because his tomb was discovered in 1922 with the mummy . . . and other objects still inside. Some people say that his tomb was cursed because a lot of people who helped discovered it died mysteriously. He became the pharaoh when he was only eight years old and he died when he was only eighteen. He might have been murdered, but no one knows for sure.”

Until now, Leah hadn’t dared to take her eyes off of her report, but from her perspective, she felt like she had been reading this report forever, and she was curious to know how her audience was responding to it. She paused and took a quick glance at her classmates. She mostly saw a lot of bored faces. A few people in the back, having given up on trying to hear what she was saying, had put their heads down on their desks and weren’t even pretending to pay attention. She knew she was almost finished, but she made a concerted effort to try to read slowly, so that she could fill her time. “Cleopatra was not the first female pharaoh to rule Egypt but she is the most famous. She became pharaoh when she was only seventeen. She fell in love with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. When she — she died when she was bit by a snake. She was trying to commit suicide.”

All this time, David had been listening carefully. Since it was his responsibility to transition between and introduce each new speaker in the group, he was trying to listen for the end of Leah’s speech. Leah was speaking so softly that it was difficult for him to follow her. He hadn’t heard her practice when they were at his house last Sunday, so he wasn’t sure when she was going to stop. “When a pharaoh died, he or she was buried with all of their belongings. Sometimes they were buried in pyramids and sometimes they were buried underground. The pharaohs believed they became gods after they died. When they buried — when they were buried — they were buried as mummies. They were buried with food and gold and even some of their servants and workers were buried with them. The pharaohs were a very important part of Egyptian society.”

She was finished. She dropped her arms and looked up at the class. She felt dizzy and out of breath. Her heart was still racing, but at least she knew her report was over-and that realization offered her a sense of relief.

What I like about the passage is that I don’t simply drop a report into the text of the story and leave it at that, but instead I tried to weave the report into the narration. The other students’ reaction to Leah’s report, and her struggle to read it, are obviously a lot more interesting than the report itself.  I’ve also tried to capture the way she struggles to read; she sometimes stutters or misreads some of her own words. I think there’s some irony in the way that she has worried so much about reading her report to the class, but when the time comes to read it, she speaks so softly that many of her classmates can’t hear what she is saying.

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