Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman: a review
The year is 1573, and young Meggy Swann has hit rock bottom. Her beloved grandmother is dead. Meggy’s mother, an alehouse keeper with no love for her daughter, sends Meggy to London to live with her father. Meggy’s first meeting with him is hardly encouraging: “I expected a son,” he says coolly, then proceeds to ignore her.
With a father who works around the clock in his alchemy lab, Meggy must navigate the streets of London alone. At first she is terrified. A birth defect has left her with twisted legs, and she can only walk with the help of sticks. This being the 16th century, most see her condition as a curse from the devil. Adults spit at her in the street; the children cackle and mock. Her only comfort is Louise, a pet goose with crippled wings.
“Louise is as lame as I am. She cannot fold her wings against her,” Meggy explains to a boy named Roger. “And she cannot fly. We are condemned to walk this earth with the same waddling gait. Belike that is why we be such friends.”
Yet as time passes, Meggy finds people—actual humans—who are not afraid of her. Roger becomes her bantering partner. She comforts a cobbler’s son and befriends a penniless printer. Slowly, Meggy finds her own strength, one that goes beyond a quick-witted tongue.
Karen Cushman has a knack for writing prickly-yet-sympathetic protagonists, and Meggy is no exception. The heroines all curse too, rather creatively. Catherine, Called Birdy cries “God’s thumbs!” and “Corpus bones!” The twentieth-century girl in The Loud Silence of Francine Green prefers “Ye gods!” Meggy’s choice phrase is the best of all: “Ye toads and vipers!”
Curses aside, the historically accurate grammar is a delight. The syntax, the rhythms, the choice phrasing all add to the vibrancy of the era. See, for example, this simple instruction from Meggy’s father:
“Take coins from yon copper pot and give them to the thieving Wormwood, that penny-pinching-nipcheese, and remind him there be other apothecaries in London.”
Penny-pinching-nipcheese. At first I thought it was Shakespearean (I’m partial to Shakespearean insults), but Cushman specifically notes that the story takes place before Shakespeare—so either she made all of her characters extra-witty, or it’s how people really spoke back then. I prefer to think the latter (if Shakespeare had all that wealth to draw from, is it any wonder his plays are full of scintillating barbs?).
Cushman saves the best insults for Meggy to speak:
Fie on him, the mewling moldwarp
Gleeking swag-bellied maggot
You wart-necked mammering clap dish…
I’m not sure what clap dish means; dictionary.net defines it as a loud noise, but as Meggy grew up in an alehouse, I’m willing to bet it’s not nearly that innocent.
More than anything I’ve read in the past year, this is a book that’s meant to be read aloud. Luckily, the audiobook just won an ALA Odyssey Honor, so here’s hoping more libraries will clamor to buy it. As for me, I must end my bloviating prattling and be off to reserve an audiobook most wondrous and great.