Book Review: Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann
Karen Cushman
Grades 7-10
176 pages

If there is a Grand Duchess of children’s historical fiction, it is Karen Cushman, this month’s featured author on Damsels in Regress.  For all my efforts to blend into the time period of which I’m writing, capturing public sentiment from primary sources and using vintage pictures to decorate houses, they pale in comparison to what Karen Cushman does with her latest novel, Alchemy and Meggy Swann.  In it, you feel the London of early Elizabethan times.  You truly feel claustrophobic on the narrow, twisting medieval streets Meggy walks.  You smell the refuse of a major city before modern plumbing and trash removal.  Your arteries literally clog at the mention of sausage pie and buttery tarts.  I have never read a book so visceral in all my life.

For all that, it has an engaging story as well.  Meggy Swann is thirteen years old and walks with the aid of two sticks her beloved grandmother fashioned for her.  She’s spent her whole life in a small village where her mother is the keeper of the alehouse, and villagers and passersby believe she’s marked by the devil.  When her long-lost father sends for her to join him in London, though, she meets a few city-dwellers who are coming out of the medieval mindset toward disease and disabilities.  A troupe of players, a printer, and a cooper all look past her crooked legs and give her the first real friends she’s ever had.

Her father, the alchemist, is another story.  He has a single-minded focus on being able to turn metal into gold, it’s “true essence,” and it blinds him to everything else, including Meggy’s welfare.  The story unfolds with as many twists and turns as London’s cobbled streets, and Meggy must keep all her wits about her to save herself and her father from his “great work.”

The other thing Karen Cushman doesn’t shy away from is period language.  I read this just before working on my post on this topic, and it was my unconscious example as I wrote. Characters say “in sooth” for “in truth,” “anon” for “soon,” “belike” for “it seems,” and not just once or twice to make a point.  It’s a delightful way to transport the readers back to this time, using vocabulary Shakespeare has either put into their heads or will in a few years.  And the Elizabethan insults will have you rolling on the floor with laughter.

Your chance to win a signed copy of this delightful book will begin Friday, so stay tuned!


5 Responses to Book Review: Alchemy and Meggy Swann

  1. Audry says:

    I’ve really got to check out a couple of these books!

  2. Tricia says:

    Sounds great!

  3. Maria Gianferrari says:

    I agree. Cushman has the uncanny ability to deliver the reader into that time and space and make it real and tangible. I can’t wait to read Meggy Swann.

    My favorite line is from “The Midwife’s Apprentice”:

    “Corpus bones–I but delivered a child!”

  4. Emilie says:

    Maria, I couldn’t have said it better. I’d forgotten that line from Midwife–I really should read that again. Catherine Called Birdy is my favorite of hers and I’ve read it sooooo many times. It’s seriously as quotable as The Princess Bride.

  5. Maria Gianferrari says:

    I just finished Meggy Swann & really loved it–lots of great insults & expressions & the repartee with Roger is so entertaining. Carbuncled toad comes to mind!

    Ye toads & vipers! It’s time to get to work!

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