An enthusiastic thumbs up to Alchemy and Meggy Swan, Karen Cushman’s realistic and entertaining tale of life in working class London in 1573. The story begins as Meggy makes her way to London on the back of a hired cart. Her mother was glad to be rid of her, and Gran, the only one who ever loved her, has died. The father she has never known has sent for her because he needs an apprentice. Thinking he has sent for a son to help in his laboratory, his disappointment on seeing Meggy–a handicapped girl–is heartbreaking.
Meggy arrives in London frightened and friendless. Having grown up thinking she was cursed and worthless, she purposely scares people off as a way of protecting herself from insults and disappointment. Little by little her encounters with people outside of her father’s house prove to her that people can be kind and can even be friends. The alchemy that her father practices is an allegory for the transformation that goes on in his daughter.
The alchemist, whom Meggy dubs “Master Peevish”, is the greatest threat to her transformation; he cannot even remember her name and rarely remembers to feed her. For this strange man nothing– certainly not his daughter and not even his own soul — is more important than his work. Meggy is horrified to learn that her father is knowingly assisting in a plot to murder a government official. She grapples with the hope that his work can transform and cure her crooked legs and the certain knowledge that what he is doing is wrong. Do the ends justify the means? What should she do? She thinks, she seeks counsel, she decides on a brave plan of action.
In this engaging story the plot takes us from the dark and sinister home of the alchemist to the boisterous, disorganized house of a troupe of players and the shops of artisans and merchants. We see the filth of open sewers and the hardness of life outside of castle walls. Life was not easy in the sixteenth century, especially for someone like Meggy. The story is realistic, but not crude as Cushman’s novel The Midwife’s Apprentice sometimes was. Important themes of hope and identity are well developed; there is even a hint of a developing love story. A satisfying read.
Margaret Hannon is a homeschooling mother. She and her husband live with five of their eight children in Bolton, MA.