Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Transformation: Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

The black-gowned man, tall and narrow, like his house, peered down at the girl through eyes as dark as her own, nearly hidden by bush black eyebrows as if two caterpillars slumbered on his brow. "Daughter?" he asked, frowning. "I expected a son."

Ye toads and vipers, he would have more disappointments to deal with this day, Meggy thought. She leaned on her walking sticks and dipping and lurching, moved herself into the house--stick, swing, drag, stick, swing, drag--pain accompanying her every step.

With no bequest but a store of impertinent Elizabethan insults from her uncaring and unwed alewife mother, Margret Swann is dispatched in a cart among a load of cabbages to live with her alchemist father, a man she only learned of on the day of her departure, a man who is disgusted at the sight of a crippled, thirteen-year-old daughter deposited at his doorstep. Meggy spends a tearful night on a dirty straw pallet without a bit of food or another word from the sharp-tongued man, comforted only by her goose Louise and the memories of her gran, who loved and nurtured her back in her village.

But Meggy has more than a sharp tongue in her head; she is resourceful and bright and with the help of the alchemist's cheerful apprentice Roger, gradually learns how to navigate the filthy streets of London and make herself useful enough to the alchemist to merit coins enough to keep herself alive. Meggy soon befriends the cooper next door, the acting troop to which Roger aspires, and Master Allyn, a poor job printer who pays her a pittance for hawking his broadsides and ballads in the street.

Although her father seems to care for nothing but his search for the elusive elixir of life, his labors require much money, and one night Meggy overhears him making a deal to provide a pair of political assassins with a poison to dispatch Baron Eastmoreland, a nobleman loyal to Queen Elizabeth. Meggy is torn between her responsibility to stop the murder and save her father from the gallows and her fear that if she does he will turn her out to beg in the streets, or at the worst, take her with him to the gallows as privy to the conspiracy.

Keeping her wits about her, Meggy composes her own ballad, has it printed out as a broadside by Printer Allyn, and positions herself at the Baron's gate. Belting out the ballad which tells the tale of the poisonous plot, Meggy knows that if she succeeds in warning the Baron her conscience will be clear but the precarious protection of her father will also be at an end.

In her latest Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Clarion, 2010), Newbery winner Karen Cushman (for Catherine, Called Birdy (Trophy Newbery,) has fashioned another masterfully funny, feisty, and feckless historical heroine who takes matters into her own young hands to make the best of a bad lot. Meggy Swann is aptly named--an ugly duckling who remakes herself into an up-and-coming tradeswoman, finds work, a home, and a foster family for herself in the household of Master Allyn, and a staunch friend and admirer in young Roger with whom she sees a real future. Indeed, Cushman's plot plays upon the theme of alchemy, as Meggy Swann indeed transforms her disability and dire situation into the promise of a good life ahead.

As the Kirkus Reviews writer says, "Cushman has the uncanny ability to take a time and place so remote and make it live. Readers can hear and see and smell it all as if they are right beside Meggy. She employs the syntax and vocabulary of the period so easily that it is understood as if it’s the most contemporary modern slang. A gem."--Kirkus (starred review)

Cushman's other fine historical fiction includes the notable The Midwife's Apprentice, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, Matilda Bone, and The Loud Silence of Francine Green, all universal coming-of-age stories firmly anchored in a vividly rendered time and place.

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