Monday, July 29, 2013

The Book of Helen by Sherry Antonetti

The Book of Helen is a historical fiction about a historical fiction. At 65, Helen of Troy is newly widowed and exiled to the island of Rhodes where she's been offered sanctuary by the ruler, her childhood friend, Queen Polyoxo.  Having no rule, no family, no husband, no power and no role, Helen is striving to once again give the world a reason to remember her and to know something of her story as opposed to the poet's take. Helen's story addresses the three questions never answered in Greek Myths. 1) Why did she leave with Paris --impulsive yes but this is a powerful smart beautiful woman, there had to be more for her than eye candy to leave a life of luxury and power 2) why didn't the Trojans just toss her over the wall when she showed up with so much baggage that wasn't Spartan gold --i.e. the 1000 ships of ticked off Greeks and 3) what made Menelaus take her back when she'd put him through public humiliation and a 10 year war of waste? The line in Homer's poem is, "She bared her breast, he dropped his sword."  But there had to be more than that.  Her newly acquired scribe Pythia acts as the keeper of Helen's treasures and memories and helps her reestablish herself in her new home, but there are some not so willing  to forget the wounds of Helen's past that made her the most famous in addition to being the most beautiful, woman in the world.  

Get it from MuseItUp Publishing.

“Vain, ignorant, power hungry fools you’ve begotten Menelaus!” she muttered, and looked out again at the smoke from her husband’s pyre. “Goddesses give me all the strengths you have, I’ll need them!” and she set about changing from a mourning widow to a ruling queen. 

She fingered several dresses before settling on the deep gray robe trimmed with the thinnest line of gold. It conveyed a sense of power. Perfect. She let down her hair, weaving in a golden rope to help obscure the grey. A tall alabaster bottle, shaped like a swan, a gift from her mother, held her favorite perfume. Opening it filled the room with the heady scent of lemon and heart of jasmine, along with notes of rose, vanilla and amber. It provided her with the comfort, the presence of an ally, even though an unseen one. Jeweled gold combs placed in her hair set the sides softly. Arching her back and lifting her neck to appear even taller, she left the chamber.
The full council was already in session. “How long ago did they start?” she wondered.
Xenodamos held the floor. He spoke forcefully about the need to show strength against the Dorians, reasserting Spartan roots. “We need to show the same teeth which made us the most feared of all peoples. To do this, we must act not as kings or queens. We must act as free Spartans!” The men nodded in agreement.

“The great kings of old eschewed riches, sweets and soft things.” His eyes lingered on Helen in her finery. “They saw modesty and self discipline as the price of their freedom. They refused the honey cakes and sweet wines of those they defeated so as not to take on the slavish habits of the conquered who could not endure long without their luxuries.” He paused as his half brother stood up, dramatically opening a large scroll. The queen grudgingly conceded it was a beautifully planned performance and a more sophisticated elegant argument than anything Xenodamos or Megapenthes might devise. Someone else orchestrated this show.
Xenodamos continued, “The Dorians have threatened to take over much of the Greek mainland. They care only for the advancement of their own power.”
Megapenthes spread out his map detailing the sea coast islands. “They have taken much of the land, burned villages, destroyed armies.” He pointed to places on the map with his knife. We cannot let Sparta or its people become part of the Dorian conquest. We must stop them here.” He pointed to Athens.
“If I may speak in the midst of this fine presentation,” Helen walked to the center of the room. She still commanded everyone’s attention. But she caught the whisper of one of her sons, “This ought to be good.”
“It’s true. The king is dead and we have a pending crisis on our hands. We all know the Dorians outnumber us five to one. As my son pointed out, we have seen their ruthlessness in the destruction of whole towns.

“We are strong. But even we need time to assemble an army to take on such a force. We are not ready. Send an envoy with some of our ‘softer things’ Xenodamos so rightly condemns, to lull them into thinking we will surrender without a struggle.” She surveyed the map gesturing to the same points Megapenthes marked with nicks from his knife.
“The Dorians have already spread themselves across much of the Northern provinces. They may appreciate the opportunity not to have to battle again so soon. It will allow us to gather our forces, assemble allies and devise a strategy for plucking them from our shores.”
Megapenthes shook his head. Xenodamos glowered. Helen could see the men considering her proposal. “I didn’t even have a plan until now.” she thought smugly. Some in the audience were swayed. Her plan seemed not only reasonable but crafty. Nicostratus, the one stepson she loved well, even trusted, stood. He would help her win the day.

About Writing The Book Helen: The Book of Helen started when I was stuck in the hospital with my eighth child. My daughter was two weeks old and had RSV, a congestive virus which can be fatal to newborns if left untreated.  In between fretting and nursing and fretting at the nurses, I was reading the Odyssey. I'd left for the hospital in a hurry and my husband thoughtfully tucked the translation he'd just bought into my bag of stuff.  There were two lines about Helen slipping opium into the wine of the warriors as they talked about Odysseus and the Trojan war with Odysseus's son, Telemcachus. I thought, that little minx! She's drugging them so they won't get worked up about who started it all and I started writing Helen stories, about her betrothal, about her treasures, and so the story started to hinge on the tokens and gifts she'd acquired over her life. 

Then I started thinking about Helen and her version of what happened and why.  I started reading other Helen myths and discovered that she is the original Fan fiction character in Western literature, because every age crafted her to their own image either of what feminine beauty should be, or of the dangers of a beautiful woman. She became a resident of Hell in Dante's inferno, she's been a lover, a pawn of the gods, a rape victim, a shallow woman who liked boy toy eye candy, and a strong woman who could argue her case even to the people who suffered most for her decisions. While the Odyssey and the Iliad remained the same, Helen was often plucked from her story and plunged into new ones. It was fun and for a first time writer, wonderful, because whenever I got stuck in the writing process, it was time to go back to reading, there were always new myths, new stories to discover. I envisioned my Helen as an Ancient world's CEO, capable, detail oriented, a manager of people and things, controlling and showy, in addition to being spoiled, beautiful, demanding and at the same time, thoughtful about how things should be as well as how they are. Six years, three laptops and two more children later, she's ready.      


Sherry G. Antonetti has a master’s in Special Education from Boston College in addition to being a stay at home mom to her ten children.

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