I’ve read The Midwife’s Apprentice and The Ballad of Lucy Whipple more times than I can count, so I was curious when I found out Karen Cushman wrote other books. Plus I was in the mood to read about alchemy. The setting is England in 1573, “after the ascension of Queen Elizabeth to the throne but before London’s first theatre and Shakespeare”. When Meggy’s grandmother dies, her mother sends her to live in London with her father. The book opens with Meggy, holding her goose Louise and her walking sticks, cursing her father very creatively. Master Ambrose has taken one look at her and claimed to have no use for a crippled daughter; he wanted a son to help him with his Great Work, creating the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. Meggy is equally unimpressed with her new lodgings, and she things London is dirty and noisy and ugly.
I don’t want to spoil anything about the plot, because part of the book’s charm is exploring London and getting to know all the various characters along with Meggy, so I’ll just say that this was a short but very enjoyable read. Karen Cushman writes great books for children because she doesn’t dumb down her subject matter. The characters are well-rounded and not in the least stereotypical: Meggy, the protagonist, has a foul temper and a sharp tongue; her father is distant and only concerned with his work, but that doesn’t make him completely evil. The other characters too — Roger, the cooper and his son, the troupe of players, the printer and his family, and all the streetsellers — are colourful and turn the book’s world into a real place filled with all kinds of people.
The language threw me at first, because all the characters talk in archaic words and sentences.
Mayhap this was but a bad dream, she thought. The dark, the cold, the strange noises, and the unfriendly man who had judged her, found her wanting, and left her alone–perhaps these were but part of a dream, and she would wake again in the kitchen of the alehouse. “Sleep well, Louise,” said Meggy to her goose, “for tomorrow, I pray, we be home.”
And don’t get me started on the creative insults, which are positively Shakespearean. “Bloviating windbag” is probably my favourite. It took me a while to get used to the strange turns of phrase, but after some chapters I stopped noticing it so much.
Overall a great read, witty and never predictable. I’m sure if I’d read it fifteen years ago it would have been an instant favourite with me and Meggy would have joined Lucy and Alice as one of my childhood heroines. Karen Kushman has a talent for writing strong stories and great female characters with their own agency. Definitely a recommended read.