I have a confession to make. I love historical fiction, and yet I had never read any of Karen Cushman's novels, even though The Midwive's Apprentice won the Newbery Medal, and Catherine, Called Birdy, was a Newbery Honor Book. But, I was browsing in Changing Hands Bookstore on Sunday, and Cushman's new book caught my eye. My former children's librarian would be proud of me because Karen Cushman was always one of her favorite authors.
Alchemy and Meggy Swann brings the London of 1573 vividly to life, as seen through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl new to the city. Meggy is a lame girl, who can only walk with the aid of two sticks. Fresh from the country, she's been sent to assist her father, an alchemist, a man she never knew existed. And, when he sees a daughter, instead of the son he expected, and a crippled daughter at that, he slams off in anger, leaving Meggy with only her goose for company. If it hadn't been for her father's former assistant, Roger, Meggy wouldn't have had anything to eat. Fortunately, Roger is good-natured, because Meggy's ill temper and insults would have sent most people fleeing in the opposite direction.
Times are changing in Elizabeth I's London, and not everyone is afraid of the disabled. Even so, Meggy faces the same sort of insults and mockery she faced in the country. She's determined to find a place for herself in the strange laboratorium where her father is trying to make gold, and find "the secrets of immortality and eternal youth." It's a lonely life for a girl who has to struggle to walk down the streets, or climb the steps to work for her father, a man who refuses to even say her name.
Cushman's book is written for junior high readers. It's skillfully done, historical fiction with humor and a determined young girl. Most adolescents will appreciate insults such as, "You wart-necked, flap-mouth maggot". They can watch Meggy change from a girl who knew others cursed her, and called herself, "The ugglesome crookleg, the foul-featured cripple, the fearful, misshapen creature marked by the Devil himself." It's filled with details of the dreams of an alchemist, and the lives of other tradespeople such as printers, coopers, and the players not allowed to perform unless they had a nobleman's sponsorship. It's the story of a girl who sees London as gloomy, noisy and smelly, but learns, as Roger did, to see possibilities.
Roger summed it up, "'Tis all here, the fine and the ragged, the rotten and the pure. London may reek with old dirt, but her streets are filled with new hopes, new dreams, and new ideas. You are fortunate to be here, Margret Swann." And, we're fortunate to have Karen Cushman's story of those times, Alchemy and Meggy Swann.
Karen Cushman's website is www.karencushmanbooks.com
Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman. Clarion Books, ©2010. ISBN 9780547231846 (hardcover), 167p.
FTC Full Disclosure - I bought my copy of the book.