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Literature / The Egypt Game

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That was the way with all of the Egypt Game. Nobody ever planned it ahead, at least, not very far. Ideas began and grew and afterwards it was hard to remember just how. That was one of the mysterious and fascinating things about it.

The Egypt Game is a classic 1967 children's novel by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. It won a Newbery Medal in 1968. As one of very few children's books about sustained imaginary games, it was cited by scholar Cathlena Martin in the American Journal of Play (vol. 10, #2, Winter 2018) as children's literature that "advocates and illustrates role playing", a cultural forerunner to tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons — "an early outpost in roleplaying history" rather than a direct inspirationnote 

Set in a California college town, The Egypt Game follows the adventures of a group of kids who become utterly fascinated with Ancient Egypt and create an imaginary world where they can live out their own rituals and dramas. This all takes place in the backyard of the local Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold, known only as the Professor. But all is not well in their neighborhood when two children are murdered and everyone thinks the Professor is behind it. (You didn't think a Newbery book would be free of death, did you?)

It was followed by a Sequel, The Gypsy Game, published thirty years after the original.

Provides examples of:

  • Asian Airhead: Elizabeth might count, although her naïveté is attributed to her being two grades below April, Melanie, Toby, and Ken.
  • Calling Parents by Their Name: April calls her mother by her first name, Dorothea. When Caroline brings up the idea of being called Grandma or Grannie, April refuses, since after all Dorothea calls Caroline by her first name (though, as the narration immediately points out, Caroline isn't Dorothea's mother, she's the mother of April's deceased father). By the end of the book, she's changed her mind.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: The impetus for inviting Elizabeth into the game: in profile she looks like the famous Nefertiti Bust.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Ken Kamata and Toby Alvillar are mentioned early on as nicknaming April "February": a sign that she's becoming accepted in her new class. They later become part of the "Egypt gang".
  • Clueless Mystery: Somewhat justified, as it presents the events the same way the children learn of them, which is the point.
  • Comic-Book Time: The Egypt Game seems to take place in the '60s. The Gypsy Game begins the moment its predecessor left off, but appears to take place in the '90s.
  • Convicted by Public Opinion: The Professor for the child murders.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: While the group is planning a ceremony, Elizabeth (inspired by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) suggests writing a letter in their own blood. They don't go through with it because they don't have anything to stick their fingers with.
  • Curtain Clothing: At one point, Melanie makes Egyptian robes for everyone using old curtains.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: The Professor whose wife was killed while traveling.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: April. It's not too hard to defrost her, though. Just let her get bored with her act of pretending to be a jerkass.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: A kid does die, but in this book it's someone the characters didn't know. In the aftermath Melanie realizes that April is much less worldly than she appears due to not having close relationships with family or friends and having access only to "the children's part of libraries", and ends up explaining criminal insanity to her.
  • Doing In the Wizard: Happens twice in-story with regard to the oracle. Toby confesses that he was writing the answers and says he'll stop, but then the oracle answers Marshall's question about Security, in different handwriting. At the very end of the book the Professor reveals he wrote that answer.
  • Epiphany Therapy: Inverted; after nearly seeing April strangled, Marshall gives up Security. It then ends up subverted in The Gypsy Game.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Professor. At the end, it's revealed that his real name is Dr. Julian Huddleston, although he still prefers to be known as "the Professor".
  • The Fashionista: April tries being one.
  • Friendly Address Privileges: Marshall's character in the game is Marshamosis, a boy pharaoh. Elizabeth's is the queen Neferbeth. The other's roles are a bit more mutable. When they join the game, Toby insists that they should all have Egyptian names, and not use their real names at all when in Egypt. Toby chooses Ramose, after a famous Egyptian wise man.note  April picks Bastet, after the goddess. Melanie names herself Aïda after the heroine of the opera, which she's seen with Afro-American soprano Leontyne Pricenote . Ken is Horemheb, like the one who had been a great general and also a pharaoh.
  • Five-Token Band: April and Toby are white (the latter with a Hispanic surname and turns out to be one-quarter Romani), Melanie and Marshall are black, and Elizabeth and Ken are Asian. The novel was written back when Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were still alive and Uhura was making waves by sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise and saying "Hailing frequencies open, sir."
    There were dozens of children in the neighborhood; boys and girls of every size and style and color, some of whom could speak more than one language when they wanted to. But in their schools and on the streets they all seemed to speak the same language and to have a number of things in common.
  • Free-Range Children: A Deconstructed Trope. The novel was written in 1967 and this trope is played straight. 11-year-olds walk to school, and the library by themselves—until the murder of a child in the neighborhood causes the adults to temporarily be overprotective. (In other words, exactly the way they are all the time nowadays.) And at the end, April is almost killed by the murderer when she goes down to Egypt at night.
  • Girls Have Cooties: April and Melanie are still holding onto the "boys are gross" mindset at eleven years old, which was considered normal at the time.
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: "The Professor".
  • Must Make Amends: After learning the Professor wasn't responsible for the murders and saved April's life, everyone in town comes to his shop and buys items they don't need.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: April says "words that Melanie wasn't allowed to say". After that, the words in question are replaced by dashes.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The setting is an unnamed "large university town in California", which is almost certainly Berkeley or a fictional version thereof. (Incidentally, Zilpha Keatley Snyder once taught at the University of California at Berkeley.)
  • Only Sane Man: Ken sees himself this way. When the rest of the group acts as if they believe in their invented rituals, he says they're "cracking up".
  • Parental Abandonment: Melanie, Marshall, and Ken are the only kids to have both parents and that's with Melanie and Marshall being siblings.
    • Disappeared Dad: April and Elizabeth's fathers died prior to the story.
    • Missing Mom: Toby's mother is gone with no explanation. April's self-absorbed mother Dorothea sends her to live with her grandmother Caroline, promising her this will be a very temporary arrangement. Months pass, Dorothea doesn't write much, doesn't send for April when she said she would, and finally sends a letter explaining how she freakin' got married without her daughter and is now living in an apartment with her new husband. All the while, April gets to come to the slow and painful realization that she has essentially been abandoned.
  • Pretty in Mink: April, showing off with a hand-me-down from her mom. Melanie decides to help April get rid of it.
  • Protected by a Child: A nonviolent version: Ken and Toby threaten to tell on April and Melanie for sneaking off from the trick-or-treat group and using the Professor's backyard without permission, but Elizabeth (who's two years younger, and looks even younger than that) steps forward and says, "Please don't tell on us, and we'll let you play too." The boys back down, and end up joining the game.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: April and Melanie. April is the volatile Red Oni to Melanie's responsible Blue Oni. April is more worldly (showboating and trying to seem older most of the time) while Melanie is more mature (a Team Mom who's always babysitting her little brother).
  • Security Blanket: Marshall with a stuffed octopus named Security.
  • Sequel Hook: "Melanie, what do you know about Gypsies?" It took 30 years in real time for Melanie to answer "Not very much, I guess. Why?"
  • Shout-Out: A replica of the Nefertiti Bust found in an antique store is what inspires three children to start the titular Egypt Game. The fourth member to join the game, Elizabeth, is invited because the other three think she resembles the bust.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: The Professor had one when he was young, with a woman who enrolled in a class he was teaching about ancient peoples.
  • The '60s: Written and set in the '60s. Most notably, in the Halloween segment, Marshall confuses trick-or-treating with going to a demonstration or protest march, something he would probably be familiar with in a California university town in the 60s.
  • Team Mom: Melanie. Among other things, she rethinks the idea of sneaking off during trick-or-treating because it might be dangerous, and talks April down when they find out Ken and Toby have been spying on them because punching them won't solve anything.
  • Those Two Guys: Ken Kamata and Toby Alvillar. They're best friends; Ken is more reserved and is solidly built and clean-cut, while Toby is talkative and creative and is skinny with shaggy hair. They become more developed individually once they join the group.
  • True Companions: The Egypt gang.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The serial child killer. The kids (naturally) don't take the issue very seriously and are mostly just upset that their playtime has been ruined. Only Melanie, for obvious reasons, really gets it.