Alchemy and Meggy Swann, by Karen Cushman

I wondered, when I first saw the title of Alchemy and Meggy Swann (2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, mg, 176 pages) if this might be fantasy...it's not, but it is my favorite of all of Karen Cushman's historical fiction to date. Set in Elizabethan England, it tells of a young girl summoned by the father she's never met to join him in London. When she arrives, however, she is given a cold greeting. Her father wanted an able-bodied boy to work for him. Meggie is a girl, and needs sticks to lean on when she walks.

Neglected, angry, and uncertain, Meggie scowls at the world. But gradually, her friendship with Roger, a player's boy, grows (mainly because he is incredibly patient with her), and she finds herself on cordial terms with a few of the tradesfolk in her new London neighborhood, although there are others who still hold the the medieval beliefs that lameness like Meggie's is a sign of sin. But up on the top floor of her new house, her father is busily trying to turn base metal into gold. To do this, he needs money....and alchemy can be put to more sinister uses. Like murder and treason....

Cushman strikes just the right balance here between historical accuracy and a lively story of contemporary interest. The dialogue is particularly zesty, managing to be Elizabethan-esque while still fun to read. Here's an example, picked more or less at random:

"Of a sudden the door banged open. "Come, Meggy Swann," Roger called. "We are off to the river in search of a breeze."

She looked up, hiding the joy she felt at seeing him, and said, "Pray sir, pardon me. For a moment I mistook you for someone I did once knew. Someone who swore he was a friend and then abandoned me to sink under my afflictions in this--"

"Nay, Meggy, be not spleeny. I was occupied with drilling the apprentices and learning a new part myself." (page 95)

Meggy is at first not the most likable of characters (she is indeed very spleeny), but she sure has reason to be more than a bit prickly. I found it a pleasure to watch her gain confidence, and realizing that she actually does have the power to change her own circumstances. The story of how she finds a place in the world is both moving and believable (well, pretty believable. In all likelihood, she would have ended up begging in the gutters, but I'm glad she didn't).

Recommended to those who like detail-rich historical fiction or books featuring characters with disabilities, and in particular to those interested in alchemy, Elizabethan theatre, and the difficulties of keeping a pet goose in 16th/17th London on a limited budget!

(nb: review copy received from the publisher, via The Picnic Basket, where you can read the thoughts of many others in the comments on this post)


  1. Oh, I SO want to describe someone as "spleeny." It beats cranky by a mile.

  2. ...p.s. I think I left the list you wrote me about someone who writes in the realm of medieval history, but even more charmingly than my favorite book. Rosemary Sutcliff... The Horse Lords or something?

  3. Ah, how I love a fiesty Cushman character!

  4. I didn't even know she had another book coming out. Thanks for the great review - so glad to hear it's a winner!

  5. "The Mark of the Horse Lord", Tanita, by Rosemary Sutcliff, and IF YOU READ IT YOU WILL NEVER FORGET IT.

    Splendid to hear of a new novel by Karen Cushman!

  6. I'm so telling my 15-year-old daughter not to be spleeny! She'll just say "whatever" but it'll be satisfying none-the-less.

  7. Thanks all, for your comments...and especially thanks Katherine for answering Tanita--who I hope follows through and reads it!

  8. I enjoyed reading this, mainly due to the fact that I plan to take my pet goose to London tomorrow then travel back in time and I was wondering how to look after it...



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