Sunday, August 11, 2013

Tribute to Barbara Mertz, AKA Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels

I admit it. I love plucky heroines. There's just something so delicious about a woman who is three-dimensional, feisty, funny, and above all else, clever.

Maybe it's that I was raised by wolverines...oh, wait. That's not totally true. I did actually spend some time in civilization from time to time. But having grown up with Tarzan, Jane, and the chimp, and being somewhat of a tomboy, running wild in the woods having plenty of adventures, I hungered for role models that fit my idea of what the ideal woman is. In author Elizabeth Peters' books, I found such a heroine. Her name? Amelia Peabody.

I first met Amelia Peabody on the pages of her Egyptian adventures back in the seventies, in Crocodile on the Sandbank. Thanks to her desire to explore the world and delve into the mysteries of life, and to her fiery relationship with Radcliffe Emerson, the hunky archaeologist, Amelia was a great role model for a woman like me, entering adulthood. She wasn't one to suffer idiots gladly, and her smart retorts were often humorous and barbed. Here she was, dealing with serious situations, and yet she wasn't stiff or boring. This was a young woman who lived life out loud, who hungered for more. She didn't see herself as settling down with a man just to have a man. That was some bar she set for someone like me. No ordinary male will do. Sure, he can have quirks, bad habits, even stumble from time to time, but he damn well better be able to keep up!

That Amelia and Radcliffe actually married and raised a family was a big part of the charm of the series. Amelia didn't have to compromise her intellect or her passion to find love, real love. She could be herself and be adored for it. She could care about her world and want it to be a better place. She didn't dumb herself down to get a husband. She was what she was and a man loved her for it. Talk about a sweet elixir!

Ms. Mertz, writing as Elizabeth Peters, offered women like me a viable alternative to the "wallflower waif waiting for life at the window of the Grand Ballroom" characters in chick lit back then. It wasn't enough to be well-born to the manor, or to be thrust into a social position by fate. Amelia ignored all those social conventions in favor of besting herself to her own definition of respectability. That takes real guts to walk away from the petty cliques and the popularity clubs.

The title of the first of Amelia's books was inspired by an Ancient Egyptian love poem:

"The love of my beloved is on yonder side
A width of water is between us
And a crocodile waiteth on the sandbank."

That quote illustrates in words what the author did best in her novels. She took her heroine and plopped her down, stuck danger a short distance away, added a large physical obstacle to overcome, and then dangled that delicious carrot -- love -- across the way. What will a smart woman do to earn the love of a smart man? How far will she go to be worthy? And how far will she push back, expecting the same of him? If Amelia Peabody were to have a favorite song, I imagine it might be something like the David Foster/Tom Keane/Cynthia Weill hit, "Through the Fire":

"Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall
For a chance to be with you
I'd gladly risk it all
Through the fire
Through whatever, come what may
For a chance at loving you
I'd take it all the way
Right down to the wire
Even through the fire...."

In this oh-so-ordinary life, when it's easy to take short cuts and look away, when it's simple to fake it and pretend, Barbara Mertz wrote about extraordinary characters. She educated us to the secrets, good and bad, of Ancient Egypt, and she did it with a passionate pen, making her characters and their adventures come alive. Through them, we found inspiration, courage, and most of all, the desire to relish life, to be alive and vibrant.

Some people never really understand what good fiction is all about. It's our practice for real life. We can gain insight and wisdom through the mistakes and misadventures our beloved characters experience. We can fire up our own passions and take the high road, thanks to fictional heroines who believe they must be stronger and smarter, even though it's hard work and no one seems to appreciate it. The more we can identify with the personality traits of honorable characters, the greater the likelihood that we will do more and be more as people.

Barbara Mertz was an author whose books were more than just clever tales to amuse and entertain. She gave us treasures to last a lifetime. I thank her for that.

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