It was Amelia that sucked me into the Mertz orbit, convinced me that I'd misunderstood ancient Egypt, enticed me to take the trip of a lifetime. It was as Barbara that Amelia's creator inspired me.
For her many readers, Barbara Mertz's story is familiar. Raised in Illinois, Mertz was imbued with the idea that women who sought careers were teachers - and she went that way until she discovered archaeology and Egyptology. She got the first PhD that the Oriental Institute gave a woman - at the ripe old age of 23. Her website relates professional training:
Much good it did me. (Or so I believed for many years.) Positions in Egyptology were few and far between, and in the post-World-War II backlash against working women, females weren't encouraged to enter that or any other job market. I recall overhearing one of my professors say to another, "At least we don't have to worry about finding a job for her. She'll get married." I did. And they didn't.
Ultimately, it was a good thing, but her love of Egypt persisted and delighted many. Me, certainly. If you haven't discovered her writing, I urge you to do so. Even after she turned to fiction, she continuted to engage with Egyptological community. She served on the editorial board at KMT, attended conferences. She wrote under three names: Mertz, Elizabeth Peters, and Barbara Michaels. Her books on ancient Egypt (Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs and Red Land, Black Land) served as my intro to the study of Egypt; her adventure tales of Amelia & Co. charmed me back again and again. I named my birds (Nefret and Ramses) after her characters. Two of my cats are named after other characters. Last year, when I took my Egypt trip? Totally influenced by her advice - I used the company that she used, and based my itinerary on Amelia's stories. More than once, as I was crawling around Amarna, Abydos and Luxor, I realized that I was experiencing those places both in the present, and as she'd presented them in her writing, as Amelia and Egyptologist Mertz.
About a year ago, I told friends about her (they'd asked about why I wanted to go to Egypt, and how I'd found my tour company) and they said I should write her biography. I loved the idea, but was reluctant to take it to another level. They pushed. And pushed. And finally, I wrote to Mertz, presented my bona fides, and asked if I could work with her on an authorized, academic biography. A day after I'd posted the letter, I realized (as I filed my copy) that I had failed to include a return address: horror. That didn't deter Mertz though: I did get a card from her, handwritten, declining my plea. Very nicely - she simply said she had too many projects in the works and didn't have the time. At 85, she was undertaking new projects. I was/am furious with with post office, as they stamped something right over her signature. I gloated that now I have a handwritten note from her, and was happy to hear she was still active and working. Selfishly, I was also thrilled - maybe it meant there was another Amelia on the way!
Turns out that one of her projects was battling cancer. Thankfully, she died peacefully in her sleep. Sadly, we're now out of Amelia Peabody adventures. I've read every one of them multiple times, finding new perspectives and inside jokes every time. I'll keep reading them.
She was an award-winning mystery writer, a gardener, an animal lover. She continues to inspire. I will miss her.