A Review of Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King
August 25, 2016 § 4 Comments
By Cara Siera
A thousand fractured monuments litter Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Still they speak, despite abuses from tomb robbers, image-erasing successive kings, and ravages of time. Kara Cooney uses the mortar of experience and imagination to repair the fragmented story of one of ancient Egypt’s few female monarchs in The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt.
Hatshepsut was no ordinary monarch. A princess of sorts, she was the daughter of her father, the king, the sister and wife of her brother, the king. She later became the king herself—yes, the king, not queen, as the ancient Egyptian tongue contained no word for a female monarch. No one expected her to be king; there was no precedent for her actions. Still, hoping to preserve her father’s dynasty, she took on regency alongside the infant son of a rival wife.
While Cooney’s writing is backed by twenty years as a professional Egyptologist, emotion drives her narrative. In each chapter, she first recreates events according to her interpretation of the evidence, at times presenting multiple, equally possible scenarios. She carefully cites a library’s worth of sources and follows each narrative with a discussion of what is actually known from stone fragments and statuary. In this way Cooney affords us an intimate look at the lives of Egyptian nobility. She fleshes out the cold stone hieroglyphics, from which she draws her information, endowing Hatshepsut with all the fears and passions that befit an ambitious maiden of sixteen, and later the sorrows and reflections of an aging ruler contemplating her own ephemerality.
While The Woman Who Would Be King is listed as nonfiction, there is no escaping the speculative nature of the work. The truth is, archeology provides bits and pieces of the story; the ancient Egyptians recorded the what and when of events, but seldom the why or how. Cooney had to conjure the latter by mating her study of the subject to her own flights of fancy. Cooney admits this, saying, “Historians will no doubt accuse me of fantasy: inventing emotions and feelings for which I have no evidence. And they will be right.” Such honesty—perhaps even humility—is the real hallmark of this work.
Cooney’s tone at times becomes almost poetic—a refreshing break from her meticulous scientific observations of ancient stele—such as in her description of Egyptian timekeeping: “Hours of the day were measured as the sun god rose and set, and years were marked with the coming and passing of the chief ritualist—the king.”
In addition to its story, science, and poetry, The Woman Who Would Become King harbors a touch of feminism. Cooney argues vehemently against earlier archeologists who painted Hatshepsut as a scheming, self-serving seductress, grappling for power and station that should have belonged to another, a male king. She criticizes those historians who “[cherish] the idea that there is something oppressive and distrustful about women who rule over men—that their mercurial moods have the power to destroy.”
Like a million other little girls growing up in the 1990s, I was raised on the notion that strong women, royal or not, could surpass historically gendered roles and even become heroes. Just such women were presented as role models in entertainment—Ariel, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Princess Leia come readily to mind. Like so many other children, I wanted to be like them and even be them. I recall one summer evening in particular—I must have been around eight years old—when I marched around my backyard singing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Disney’s Mulan. I found a stick and practiced karate-style jumps as I’d seen in film, and then I made my best attempt at climbing a security-light pole, to no avail. Hatshepsut may be no Disney princess, and she enjoyed no fairy tale ending. Still, Cooney gives us the visage of a woman who, viewed through the lens of thousands of years of bygone history, represents the same archetype. “Perhaps she believed that she could change the system,” Cooney concludes. “And maybe we still believe the same thing.”
Cara Siera is a freelance writer and photographer. She holds a bachelor of science in psychology and sociology. Her work has been featured in the Red Mud Review, and she curates several blogs, covering topics from wedding planning to world travel.