Thursday, April 18, 2013
The Last Egyptian
The Last Egyptian is a curious piece of Baum's writing. The story begins by following a young Egyptian named Kāra as he meets Gerald Winston Bey. Kāra surprises Winston with his seemingly lowly appearance, yet a high intellect and extensive knowledge of Egyptian history. Kāra claims heritage from Ahtka-Rā, High Priest of Ămen. Thus, he claims that he is the last true Egyptian. He lives with his aged grandmother Hatacha, who married the English Lord Roane, but was publicly humiliated when they divorced and she was left in poverty. Winston promises to help Kāra if he can recover some ancient papyrus scrolls that it appears Hatacha owns.
However, Kāra soon has new plans as Hatacha tells him that she is about to die, and she gives him secret information to find their ancestral treasure (which she's only gone to when they needed money), which he can use to avenge her dignity by destroying the family of Lord Roane.
Tadros the dragoman appears on the scene and is hired by Kāra to serve him as he sets himself up as a respectable gentleman in Cairo. He sells the girl Nephthys to Kāra to be the first in his harem.
Kāra proves very successful in his plots to discredit Lord Roane's family, but eventually has second thoughts when he meets Roane's granddaughter Aneth Consinor and falls for her. (Never mind that she's his cousin.) He asks her to marry him, but she refuses. This infuriates Kāra, and he has Nephthys sent back home to her mother. He blackmails Aneth into agreeing to marry him, but some of Aneth's friends scheme to get her and her family away from Cairo, enlisting Tadros who'll do anything for money or to save his life. A scuffle in a secret tomb, a swift knife and possibly an ancient curse bring the story to a startling conclusion.
I said The Last Egyptian was a curious piece of Baum's writing. While Lord Roane is not a good man, neither is Kāra, and neither is Tadros, and especially not Aneth's father. Winston Bey could be considered a protagonist, except he doesn't do much. The only reason why the reader will not want Kāra to win is because of Aneth's innocence of her father and grandfather's misdeeds. She's the only person who hasn't done anything wrong, bringing up Baum's admiration of women and strong pro-feminist beliefs.
Baum also does a nice shift by having Kāra set out to take revenge for Hatacha's humiliation, only to humiliate Nephthys in a similar fashion. And unlike Hatacha, Nephthys takes her revenge into her own hands.
Probably the biggest difference between this and most of Baum's other work is that none of the characters are American. Kāra, Tadros, Nephthys, Hatacha and Winston Bey hail from Egypt, while Lord Roane's family are all from England. This is unusual as Baum was a proud American, but honestly, I've read this book twice before, and only just now picked up on this. It's unusual, but Baum handles it so well that it's not a detraction.
A little warning, Lord Roane twice uses the word "nigger" to refer to Kāra, once to his face. Kāra is offended at this. Remember the time in which it was written, people. Plus, Roane's a bad guy. As is Kāra...
I've surprisingly found some copies of the original 1908 edition for less than $100 online, but my copy is a 2002 edition by Fredonia Books. That was a nice facsimile of the original edition, but it appears that there is a new print-on-demand edition available now as well, from the same people who made my copy of The Fate of A Crown, so chances are they did very well on that.
There's also three different digital versions from Archive.org.