Book Review: Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman
9780547231846, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16

Meggy Swann is crippled at a time when non-able-bodied people were thought to be cursed by the Devil. She must walk with two crutch-sticks to support her weak and twister legs. Her sour disposition doesn’t help her make friends, but which came first – the sour disposition or the near constant taunts and torments from those around her?

At the opening of the novel, she has just been shipped off from the only home she’s ever known in a country village tavern to live with her father in Elizabethan London. Having never met or heard of her father before, she has no idea what to expect. Neither does he. Neither one are happy with their situation. Meggy is stuck living in a dark, dingy, dirty house with no food or money while her alchemist father spends all his time upstairs in his laboritorium trying to find the secret to turning things into gold and finding the elixir of life.

As Meggy taps into sources of inner strength, she begins to explore London, and in doing that, unexpectedly makes some of her first human friends. She had brought with her to London her best friend, Louise, a large white goose, which unfortunately gets banished soon after they arrive. Roger Oldham, her father’s former apprentice-turned-player (as in play-acting), and his troupe led by Mr. Grimm and Mr. Merrymaker agree to keep Louise out of the slaughter house. Besides the merry band of players, Meggy also gets to know a cooper and his son, and a printer and his family.

When her father sells some men arsenic to kill off a baron, Meggy is shocked to discover her father is desperate enough to consort with murderers in order to earn money for his experiments. She comes up with a plan to warn the baron, but without confessing her father’s role. Though she succeeds in warning the baron, her father lives up to his bad character and leaves her stranded and homeless in London. Meggy is dismayed, but the biggest shock comes from finding out she has friends who will help take care of her. She goes to live with the printer and his family to take care of the babies and be an apprentice print-maker. The short novel ends with her dancing for the first time in her life, happy among friends, flirting with Roger, and not quite as sharp-tongued as she first was in the beginning.

Though I did not enjoy as much as The Midwife’s Apprentice or Catherine, Called Birdy, there is a similar brilliance in how much Karen Cushman can pack into a 150+ page novel. The historical elements are by far the most interesting, and of course, impeccably researched. There’s so much factual information packed into this slim book, and enough of a story to interest the young historical fiction enthusiast. The publisher is marketing this book toward ages 10-14, but I think a strong 8 or 9-year-old reader wouldn’t have a problem. Not for every child, but I don’t believe Karen Cushman fans will be disappointed.

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