Alchemy and Meggy Swann

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Fans of Karen Cushman's witty, satisfying novels will welcome Meggy Swann, newly come to London with her only friend, a goose named Louise. Meggy's mother was glad to be rid of her; her father, who sent for her, doesn't want her after all. Meggy is appalled by London,dirty and noisy, full of rogues and thieves, and difficult to get around in—not that getting around is ever easy for someone who walks with the help of two sticks.Just as her alchemist father pursues his Great Work of transforming base ...

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Alchemy and Meggy Swann

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Overview

Fans of Karen Cushman's witty, satisfying novels will welcome Meggy Swann, newly come to London with her only friend, a goose named Louise. Meggy's mother was glad to be rid of her; her father, who sent for her, doesn't want her after all. Meggy is appalled by London,dirty and noisy, full of rogues and thieves, and difficult to get around in—not that getting around is ever easy for someone who walks with the help of two sticks.Just as her alchemist father pursues his Great Work of transforming base metal into gold, Meggy finds herself pursuing her own transformation. Earthy and colorful, Elizabethan London has its dark side, but it also has gifts in store for Meggy Swann.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Cushman's (Catherine, Called Birdy) newest novel has all the elements that have made her earlier books so beloved. With flawless historical prose, Cushman introduces Meggy Swann, a feisty, sharp-tongued girl just arrived in gritty Elizabethan London, who has had more than her share of hard knocks. Unwanted by both her parents, she describes herself as “the ugglesome crookleg, the four-featured cripple, the fearful, misshapen creature,” dependent on two “sticks” to hobble about. When Meggy is sent to live with her father, he is horrified to have to house and care for her—he wanted a son and an assistant. Meggy is equally unhappy until she tries her hand at her father's work: alchemy. While Cushman's story revolves around the potential magic and disappointing fraud of alchemy (and Meggy's father) as well as a murder plot, at its heart are relationships. Meggy must learn to open up to others to turn her life from loneliness and anger toward friendship and even joy. There is no unequivocally happy ending for Meggy, but a better life awaits her, and readers will gladly accompany her on the journey. Ages 10-14. (Apr.)
Children's Literature - Sharon Salluzzo
Meggy leaves her mother and the village in which she has been raised and goes to London when her father, an alchemist, summons her. Having never met her, he was unaware of her condition. "Her legs did not sit right in her hips—she had been born so . . .," and she uses walking sticks that her loving gran found in the woods for her. But her gran is now dead. Her mother does not want her around and her father sees her only as a burden for which he has no time. Just as Meggy will get to know the sights, sounds and smells of London of 1573, so will the reader. There is a map in the front of the book to acquaint the reader with the area in which Meggy lives. She attempts to prove herself useful to her father despite the pain of walking. She befriends a young actor, a printer, and the neighboring cooper and his son. When Meggy overhears a plot to kill Baron Eastmoreland, she schemes to find a way to save him without implicating her father. Transformations occur repeatedly throughout this story, primarily those that occur within Meggy. Among the others are her effect on the people she meets, the modernization of the city of London, and its political changes. In addition, Master Ambrose seemingly only has time for his alchemy. Cushman's phrasing and choice of words gives a nod to sixteenth-century English and might cause some readers a little difficulty. Most will quickly be caught up in Meggy's plight and will even delight in the banter. How can anyone resist a story that begins, "Ye toads and vipers." Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—Uprooted from the home she shares with her uncaring mother in an English country village, 13-year old Meggy Swann is unceremoniously shipped off to London to live with her father. Upon her arrival, Meggy finds her father to be a cold and distant alchemist. He's disappointed that not only is she a girl, but she is crippled and has to walk with the aid of canes. Meggy, along with her only friend and companion, a white goose named Louise, is left to fend for herself in a city that is dangerous, chaotic, crowded, and dirty. Life is especially challenging for her in London in 1573 bcause people with physical deformities are viewed with suspicion and considered cursed by the devil. As Meggy learns to adapt to her circumstances, she meets new people, makes some friends, and spoils a plot to poison a member of the royal court, saving her father's life in the process. Katherine Kellgren's lively reading of Karen Cushman's novel (Clarion, 2010) is flawless, capturing Meggy's feisty temperament in the period language. Her narration of a wide-range of accents if excellent, and she does a wonderful job singing the ballads that Meggy composes and sings. The sights and sounds of the era and the sense of place and time are vividly depicted as Meggy grows in confidence and independence, using available resources and her wit, courage, and determination to forge a place for herself in her new world.—Mary Oluonye, Shaker Heights Public Library, OH
Kirkus Reviews
Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne. London is a sprawling, chaotic city that teems with all manner of humanity. Meggy has come to London ostensibly to serve her alchemist father, a man she has never met. When he rejects her because she is not male and because she is unable to walk normally, she needs all her pluck and determination to rise above her plight. Her loneliness and hunger are assuaged by Roger, an apprentice actor, and his troop of players, as well as a printer and a cooper who become her friends. She works tirelessly to gain her father's respect, but she finds her own self-respect instead. Meggy is a heroine in mind and deed. Cushman has the uncanny ability to take a time and place so remote and make it live. Readers can hear and see and smell it all as if they are right beside Meggy. She employs the syntax and vocabulary of the period so easily that it is understood as if it's the most contemporary modern slang. A gem. (author's note, bibliography) (Historical fiction. 10-14)
From the Publisher
(1995, both Clarion) will not be disappointed

"Writing with admirable economy and a lively ability to re-create the past believably, Cushman creates a memorable portrayal of a troubled, rather mulish girl who begins to use her strong will in positive ways."—Booklist, starred review

"Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne. London is a sprawling, chaotic city that teems with all manner of humanity. Meggy has come to London ostensibly to serve her alchemist father, a man she has never met. When he rejects her because she is not male and because she is unable to walk normally, she needs all her pluck and determination to rise above her plight...Cushman has the uncanny ability to take a time and place so remote and make it live. Readers can hear and see and smell it all as if they are right beside Meggy. She employs the syntax and vocabulary of the period so easily that it is understood as if it’s the most contemporary modern slang. A gem."—Kirkus , starred review

"Cushman adds another intrepid, resourceful, courageous girl to her repertoire in this tale set in 16th-century London...Her courage and confidence grow with each obstacle overcome. Cushman fans who loved Catherine, Called Birdy (1994) and The Midwife's Apprentice (1995, both Clarion) will not be disappointed"—School Library Journal, starred review

"Cushman's (Catherine, Called Birdy) newest novel has all the elements that have made her earlier books so beloved. With flawless historical prose, Cushman introduces Meggy Swann....There is no unequivocally happy ending for Meggy, but a better life awaits her, and readers will gladly accompany her on the journey."—Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547231846
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/26/2010
  • Pages: 167
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Lexile: 810L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Cushman is the acclaimed author of a Newbery Honor book and a Newbery Medal book as well as four other popular historical novels, all published by Clarion Books. She lives on Vashon Island in Washington State.Her web site is www.karencushmanbooks.com.

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Read an Excerpt

One

“Ye toads and vipers,” the girl said, as her granny often had, “ye toads and vipers,” and she snuffled a great snuffle that echoed in the empty room. She was alone in the strange, dark, cold, skinny house. The carter who had trundled her to London between baskets of cabbages and sacks of flour had gone home to his porridge and his beer. The flop-haired boy in the brown doublet who had shown her a straw-stuffed pallet to sleep on had left for his own lodgings. And the tall, peevish-looking man who had called her to London but did not want her had wrapped his disappointment around him like a cloak and disappeared up the dark stairway, fie upon him!

  Fie upon them all!

  She was alone, with no one to sustain and support her. Not even Louise, her true and only friend, who had fallen asleep in the back of the cart and been overlooked. Belike Louise was on her way back out of the town with the carter, leaving the girl here frightened and hungry and alone. Ye toads and vipers, what was she to do? She sat shivering on a stool as unsteady as her humor, and tears left shining tracks like spider threads on her cheeks.

  Her name was Margret Swann, but her gran had called her Meggy, and she was newly arrived from Millford village, a day’s ride away. The bit of London she had seen was all soot and slime, noise and stink, and its streets were narrow and dark. Now she was imprisoned in this strange little house on Crooked Lane. Crooked Lane. How the carter had laughed when he learned their destination.

  Darkness comes late in high summer, but come it does. Meggy could see little of the room she sat in. Was there food here? A cooking pot? Wood for a fire? Would the peevish-looking man—Master Peevish, she decided to call him—would he come down and give her a better welcome?

  Startled by a sudden banging at the door and in truth a bit fearful, Meggy stood up quickly, grabbed her walking sticks, and made her way into the farthest corner of the room. She moved in a sort of clumsy jig: reach one stick ahead, swing leg wide and drag it forward, move other stick ahead, swing other leg wide and drag it forward, over and over again, stick, swing, drag, stick, swing, drag. Her legs did not sit right in her hips—she had been born so—and as a result she walked with this awkward swinging gait. Wabbling, Meggy called it, and it did get her from one place to another, albeit slowly and with not a little bit of pain.

  The banging came again, and then the door swung open and slammed against the wall, revealing the carter who had fetched her to London.

  He was not gone! Meggy’s spirits rose like yeasty bread, and she wabbled toward the doorway. “Well met, carter,” she said. “I wish to go home.”

  “I were paid sixpence to bring you hither,” he said. “Have you another six for the ride back?”

  “Nay, but my mother—”

  He shook his head. “Your mother was right pleased to see the back of you.” He turned, took two steps, and lifted something from the bed of the wagon. Something that wriggled and hissed. Something that leapt from his arms. Something that showed itself to be a large white goose, her wings spread out like an angel’s as she made her waddling way over to the girl. Louise. Meggy’s goose and friend.  

  Meggy exhaled in relief and gladness. She bent down and looked into the goose’s deep black eyes. “Pray be not angry with me, Louise. In all the hurly-burly of arriving, I grew forgetful.” Louise honked loudly and shook herself with such a shake that there was a snowfall of feathers.

  When Meggy stood up again, the carter and the wagon had gone. Her eyes filled, but her hands held tightly to her walking sticks, so she could not dash the tears away. They felt sticky on her lips, and salty.

  She sat down on the stool again and put one arm around the goose, who stretched her neck and placed her head on Meggy’s lap. “You may observe, goosie,” the girl said, stroking the soft, white head, “that I be most lumpish, dampnified, and right bestraught. This London is a horrid place, and I know not what will befall us here.”

  Meggy and Louise rocked for a moment, and Meggy softly sang a misery song she had learned from her gran. I wail in woe, I plunge in pain, with sorrowing eyes I do complain, she sang, but the sound of her trembly voice in the empty room was so mournful that she stopped and sat silent while darkness grew.  

  Meggy and the carter had arrived in London earlier that day while the summer evening was yet light. Even so, the streets were gloomy, with tall houses looming on either side, rank with the smell of fish and the sewage in the gutter, slippery with horse droppings, clamorous with church bells and the clatter of cart wheels rumbling on cobbles. London was a gallimaufry of people and carts, horses and coaches, dogs and pigs, and such noise that made Meggy’s head, accustomed to the gentle stillness of a country village, ache.

  “Good even’, mistress,” the carter had called to a hairy-chinned woman with a tray of fish hanging from her neck. “Know you where we might find the house at the Sign of the Sun?”

  “I cannot seem to recall,” the fishwife said, “but belike I’d remember if my palm were crossed with a penny.” She stuck out a hand, knobby and begrimed. The carter frowned and grunted but finally took a penny from the purse tied at his waist and flicked it at her.

  She plucked it from the air and flashed a gummy smile. “Up Fish Street Hill but a little ways is Crooked Lane,” she said. “You will see the Sign of the Sun six or more houses up the lane.”

  Crooked Lane. Meggy had pulled her skirts tighter around her legs, and the carter had laughed.

  As the fishwife had said, six houses up Crooked Lane, be-low a faded sign of, indeed, the sun, was the narrowest house Meggy had ever seen, hardly wider than a middling-tall man lying edge to edge, and three stories high. Its timbers were black with age, and the yellow plaster faded to a soft cream. A bay window on each floor was fitted with small panes of glass, dusty and spotted and, here and there, cracked. The upper floors hung over the street, as was true of all the houses in Crooked Lane, so the street was shadowy and damp. To one side of the house was a shop, shuttered and dark, with a large shoe hanging in front, betokening a cobbler’s shop, Meggy thought. There was a bit of garden next to it, although what would grow in that damp gloom Meggy could not say. On the other side was a purveyor of old clothes. “Old cloaks? Have you an old cloak to sell?” the merchant called from the door of his shop. “Or mayhap—”

  “Away, fellow,” the carter said. “We have business with the master here.”

  The clothes seller snorted. “Business? With him? Abracadabra more like.” And he spat.

  Abracadabra? Meggy shivered now, remembering. “What could he have meant?” she asked Louise. But the goose, busily grooming her feathers, did not answer.  

  “And hearken to me, Louise,” Meggy went on. “On London Bridge I beheld heads, people’s heads, heads black with rot and mounted on sticks, hair blowing in the summer wind like flags at a fair. Traitors, the carter said, a lesson and a warning.” The girl shivered again. Heads. What sort of place was this London?

  As darkness grew, Meggy lay down carefully and with some difficulty and undertook to make herself comfortable on the straw pallet, she who had slept on Granny’s goose-feather mattress. She did not know what hurt her most—her aching legs or her empty belly or her troubled heart. Pulling her cloak over her and nestling Louise beside her, she breathed in the familiar smell of goose and grew sleepy.

  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.”

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