It’s been far too long since I did a book review, despite so many millions of words I’ve read in the past few months. Mostly I’ve been perusing the science-fiction and mystery tomes–what else is new?–but the first of what will probably be many literary deconstructions–shut up–will be renown Egyptologist Dr. Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King, a biography on what’s really the only female pharaoh in history, Hatshepsut.
First disclaimer: I was given an advanced copy, though not the final proof, with the understanding that I would give an honest review; insulted they even have to ask, but okay.
Second disclaimer (Ha, weren’t expecting that one, were ya?): I know the author, and have listened to her lectures about half a dozen times, plus I have her entire Discovery Channel series on my tablet. Those who regularly read this blog–if such animal exists–might remember I refer to her as a giggly teenager with a giant brain, at least in person, and to a smaller extent in her lectures. I would imagine most stolid archaeologists and historians tend to take her less seriously because of her playful demeanor and frequent asides–often to mention how much she loved the latest sci-fi movie–but for those very same reasons she’s a hit with us who don’t make the study of ancient Egypt our lifelong passion. In fact, I might even go as far as to consider her Egyptology’s version of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking–or nowadays Neil DeGrasse Tyson–though obviously not to the same acclaim or fame, in bringing what’s generally considered a stolid subject, at least when historically accurate, to the masses.
The reason I wrote all that is so you’ll understand when I say she writes the same way she speaks.
One more thing. A few months ago I was passing time in the UCLA library before an event and happened to come across Social Life in Ancient Egypt, by the one and only Flinders Petrie. For a book published in 1924, it was in amazingly good shape, but more to the point, it wasn’t another dry, facts-only tome on buildings or leaders. Dr. Cooney takes this to another level with an almost conversational style, even moving into supposition a few times, though she makes sure to point out when that happens.
Okey-dokes, on to the review. If there’s a running theme in this biography, it’s how previous Egyptologists had given Hatshepsut a hard time, jumping to conclusions about her character. Though there are a lot of women in this discipline–and a lot more coming, if the UCLA grad students are any indication–it wasn’t that long ago that you’d only find older white guys writing the books and giving the speeches. So as she mentions the belittling from previous generations of critics who’d thought of Hatshepsut as a power-hungry witch, taking her nephew’s crown for herself, Dr. Cooney defends her girl. On the other hand, she also states that some later historians overcorrected, turning the relatively young leader into a feminist icon, doing everything selflessly in order for her nephew to be a successful ruler, once he came of age. As with most human endeavors, the truth is no doubt somewhere in between.
The book is divided into a relatively small amount of chapters, telling the story of this enigmatic historical figure chronologically, starting with what life would have been like for her growing up as the daughter of an Egyptian leader. Like Petrie’s work, there’s a lot of stuff about everyday life that I’m sure most people would never think of asking. She was groomed to marry the next pharaoh, who was actually her brother, only to find him too sickly as a teenager to do much ruling, finally dying before they could produce a male heir. He did, however, have a son with another of his wives/concubines, thus continuing the familial line barely started by the previous ruler. This put her position of power, and the purity of her father’s lineage, in danger of going away, but with the respect she’d earned–and apparently plenty of money–she managed to become the baby king’s regent. Over time she amassed more power, basically becoming co-pharaoh before pretty much taking over the whole thing, to the point where she had to switch her identity to male, at least in the official records in the walls of the temples and obelisks.
Dr. Cooney’s specialty is the reuse of coffins, but if there’s another subject on which she frequently lectures, it’s the history–or is that herstory–of powerful women. To me the most telling line was “Hatshepsut has the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right.” She mentions how few of them there were, referencing one of my favorites, Boadicea, as well as Empress Lu–never heard–and of course Cleopatra. She does mention, however, that Hatshepsut was the only female ruler to rise to power without the use of assassination or coup, all the more impressive doing it during a time of peace and prosperity. Interestingly she adds, “Hatshepsut’s story can help us appreciate why authoritative women are still often considered to be dangerous beings who need to be controlled, monitored, contained, and watched.”
Dr. Cooney describes Hatshepsut as practical and elegant, not devious and cunning, adding a term that I like very much: “She was intelligently ambitious. . . she really had been bred for palace politics.”
A couple of examples of her famous irreverent nature: “Egyptians were not troubled by the idea of burying a king in an incomplete tomb–that was the last guy’s problem.” Even the notes that take up the last quarter or so of the text contain her witty, as when she starts off with, “What Egyptologists put in print is often different from what they might say at the bar among friends.” Reminds me of that interview Dr. Cooney gave where she mentioned how Egyptologists like to get together and drink. . .
One more note on the text: about two-thirds of the way through, if you count the notes at the end, there’s a long description on the removal of the organs from the dead king/queen’s body. You have been warned; I wish I could UNread it.
Okay, considering what I told you about Dr. Cooney to begin this, it’s her dedications that show you exactly what I mean about her bubbly personality; in fact, it might have been my favorite part. First she notes that she began writing this soon after the birth of her son, and finished at his fourth birthday. “No woman should write a book during those years. No one.” Then she talks about her women in power class at UCLA, and how the students would soon be reading this book, “whether they like it or not.” Then, to completely cement her irreverent attitude, she tells that she wrote most of this book at a Mexican food joint, and lists a few of the workers who no doubt kept her table full of not just computer and books, especially on Taco Tuesday.
Guess this proves she really is from Texas. . .