Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Centurion's Wife, by Davis Bunn & Janette Oke

Set immediately after the crucifixion of Christ, this historical novel, written by two old pros, has a lot going for it. The authors explored how the people who were present after the event responded to it. They included all the key characters from Pilate and his wife, to Herod and Caiaphas, to the centurian whose servant was healed, to Lazarus and his sisters, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus--virtually the entire cast sans the apostles.

Bunn and Oke explored this from a couple of directions: How the event affected the lives, not just of those who believed, but also of those who didn't, and those whose political power demanded the story be false; and how independent investigators (actually a centurian, Alban, and a servant girl, Leah) of the era would go about discovering the truth of the empty tomb.

The authors did some serious research, and Davis Bunn is well-acquainted with the region their novel is set in. And yet, when I glanced through the reviews in Amazon, I discovered it was the authors' research that was called into question most.

Of all the lessons I imagine Bunn and Oke would want drawn from their novel, the last would be one in faulty research. But I'm writing this not just to emphasize how important research is, but to point out the self-proclaimed experts who bring an author's research into question.

One person in Amazon's reviews pointed out the frequency with which the characters drank tea. She wasn't sure, she said, but was tea even around west of China two thousand years ago? Well, yes. I found a treatise that tracked the tea trade along with the silk trade, truly indicating its antiquity. Whether Romans or Jews drank tea, I don't know. It was available to them. Tea is made with water, and both societies of the time were careful with their water supplies, so it's possible.

Another person wasn't happy about Leah and her backstory. Leah had been a young woman of society in Rome, but once her father fell into ruin, she was sold to Pilate to serve his wife. Pilate and Herod used Alban the centurion's attraction to Leah to purchase his services to investigate the empty tomb. Since Leah was part Judean, her betrothal to Alban would give him access to information he may not otherwise have. To say Leah wasn't happy about the situation would be an understatement--and that's where our self-avowed historian's review comes to play. She believed Leah's frequent complaints about being betrothed were unwarranted.

According to her, Leah, having once been a lady of Roman society, would be accustomed to the practice of women being "married off" without having a say-so. Such trades were made to advance political goals or alliances between nations. Perhaps. But nowhere did the authors indicate Leah's father was political. If he were a merchant, for instance, trading Leah off may not benefit him. I was of the impression most Roman women were free to choose. But I could be wrong.

Now if the reviewer had indicated that selling or marrying off a servant was common, and Leah had no real expectation of remaining unwed because of this, she may have had a point. Either way, it's moot. Leah didn't want to get married at all, and expecting that fate wouldn't have changed her mind.

In my opinion, the authors did an excellent job. I admit, I balked at the word "cronies" found in the text and stopped reading to look it up. (The word was popularized by college kids back in the seventeenth century, a bit late to be written into a centurion's POV.) But the discovery certainly wasn't enough to change my opinion of the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Perhaps the reviewers really are experts on the Roman era, I don't know. But I have no doubt of Oke and Bunn's research into their subject matter primarily because neither author would've risen in their careers if they had shoddy research practices. Because I'm more familiar with these writers than I am the reviewers, I trust the writers.

The lessons from these pros are 1) thorough research is mandatory, 2) you're not going to catch every mistake, and 3) criticism, like opinions, is free--and not always worth the price.
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  1. Research is crucial - but it's inevitable that authors will make mistakes, no matter how thorough they've been. As a reader, I'm willing to be forgiving of minor gaffes, particularly if it's evident that the author has otherwise done his homework.

  2. I plead guilty to many historical nit-picks of novels. Please people get your information RIGHT! :) That said, though, if the author is skillful enough, they can incorporate more modern language, etc, into the novel without breaking the spell. It's all about craft.

    That said - IMHO no novel set pre 1900 should include the word "okay". No. Nada. Nyet!

  3. It seems that everyone is a self-proclaimed expert on something, these days! Good take away value here, Linda. Thanks for sharing.