Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

by Karen Cushman


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Meggy arrives in London expecting to be welcomed by her father, who sent for her, but he doesn't want her to assist in his laboratory when he sees that not only is she female, she needs two sticks to walk. Sent on trivial errands, she learns to navigate the city, which is earthy and colorful as well as dirty, noisy, and filled with rogues and thieves. Meanwhile she is befriended by the alchemist's former assistant, and when it appears that her father may be arrested and beheaded for practicing magic, together she and her new friend devise a plan to save him. Building strength and street smarts, Meggy goes from helpless to confident and from friendless to surrounded by warmth and love. Elizabethan London has its dark side, but it also has much to offer Meggy Swann.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547577128
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 10/25/2011
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.60(d)
Lexile: 810L (what's this?)
Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

About 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

Read an Excerpt


“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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Alchemy and Meggy Swann 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
ComaCalm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After Meggy Swann's Grandmother dies, her mother sends her to live with her Father, an Alchemist who has sent for her. Upon arriving in London she finds that her Father doesn't want her - for she is a cripple and a girl, he was expecting a boy. Undeterred, Meggy makes a great many friends in London and slowly learns how to live there. Then she hears that her Father is planning to a Baron and Meggy has to decide what to about it... This book is good but it doesn't stand out. It's a quick story, written as if for children in the Seventies, rather than now. However Karen's writing style is vivid and descriptive and Meggy is an engaging character. The idea of her being a cripple is certainly a unique one and I enjoyed learning how she got around London (slowly). It would be easy to sum this entire story up in one sentence: Meggy Swann moves to London and makes friends. Later on she discovers that her Father is making a potion to kill the Baron. Finally, some action! Eh, not really. The book ends with a happy childish ending with everyone singing and dancing around a table. Yes, really.(Received this free from NetGalley to review)
dk_phoenix on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a short, sweet tale (albeit rather dark at times) about a young girl in 16th-century London. She is deformed from birth and needs crutches to walk, and when her previously absent father sends for her from London, he's shocked to discover she's not a boy who can help him with running errands for his work. Poor Meggy is cursed at, spat upon, and reviled by many who believe that cripples are agents of the Devil -- a belief that was prevalent up until the 16th century, when opinions finally began to change. Meggy meets many interesting and colorful characters thoughout the course of the story -- including a young boy named Roger, who she frequently trades insults with -- and both the description of the setting and the language of the characters creates a very vivid picture of Meggy's world at the time.I enjoyed the book and found Meggy to be an intriguing young character who deals with her hardships remarkably well, but at the same time, I was a little surprised at the amount of hardship the author put her through, especially considering the target age for the book. I commend the author for retaining a sense of realism, but I think even the language would be a bit challenging for some younger readers.On the whole, I wouldn't say it's my favorite Cushman novel thus far, but it's a good addition to her series of books about strong, young females. Certainly a worthwhile read.
RoseMarion on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The year is 1573 in England. Queen Elizabeth I is the reigning queen, and Meggy Swann is an adolescent girl who has been sent by her cruel mother to live with the father she has never known in filthy and smelly London. To top it all off, Meggy is crippled and is forced to learn her own way around the vast and unknown city. ¿Ye toads and vipers!¿ When Meggy first arrives in London, she is hopeful that her father will care about her and want a relationship with her, but she soon realizes that his true love is himself and his ¿Great Work.¿ Indeed, he spends all of his hours locked in a laboratory mixing chemicals trying to change base metals into gold. He is also trying to find the ¿great elixir of life¿ or the fountain of youth. His ¿Great Work¿ doesn¿t pay much, and Meggy is often hungry and cold. Left to fend for herself, Meggy soon learns her way around the streets of London and meets some kind people such as Roger Oldham (an old helper of her father¿s), Master Cooper, and Printer Allyn. Printer Allyn prints many ballads which are sold on every street in London proclaiming interesting stories and the news of the day. In time, Meggy¿s father does start to talk to her, but mostly so he can have her help in the laboratory. While this isn¿t exactly the life Meggy had envisioned for herself, she does her best because her beloved Gran would have wanted her to be positive. One day however, Meggy overhears two men talking to her father about an evil plot to murder a high official in Queen Elizabeth¿s court. ¿Ye toads and vipers!¿ What will Meggy do? She can¿t allow her father to get involved in something so wicked and evil, and yet what can she, a poor and crippled common girl, do to stop such a plot? Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman is absolutely wonderful historical fiction written in the same vein as Ms. Cushman¿s other novels which are always about young girls who face adversity and yet find their own way to succeed. Meggy is a great heroine to add to the long list of heroines created by Karen Cushman. If you enjoy historical fiction that is richly researched and detailed, then you will enjoy any of Karen Cushman¿s fantastic young adult novels!
bplma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"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." It is 16th Century Elizabethan London and 13 year old Meggy Swann, with her deformed legs and walking sticks, has just arrived from the country to live with the cold and distant father she has never met. But once this father, the odd and unfriendly Alchemist, realizes she is both deformed and female, Meggy is left to fend for herself-- virtually and then literally abandoned-- her only friend the equally bad tempered goose named Louise. But Karen Cushman's hallmark is the strong female character and Meggy is at the top of the list. She makes her way-- finding friends and allies and creating a life for herself that is both positive and believable within her historic context. I love Cushman-- for her strong female characters, clever and likable as well as for the beautiful and luscious language she employs to carry us away. Great for girls and anglophiles and lovers of Shakespearean insults.
Knicke on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved that the main character transitions from a self-image of helplessness to one of empowerment, while still remaining relatively realistic in terms of the historical context. Really, my only quibble with this book is that it's too short. I'm all for brevity in children's fiction, but I feel like there was a lot more to explore here, and parts just felt...glossed over.
Whisper1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a delightful tale of Meggy Swann, a young girl hobbled by the birth defect of what would now be diagnosed as hip dyplasia. She fends for herself in un merry ole England during Elizabethan days. Those with deformities were looked upon as freaks marked by the devil.It is obvious that the author researched the time period. Cushman is a Newbery honor and medal winner for good reason.While the tale may seem gloomy, truly it is a story of the resiliency of the human spirit and the ability to overcome obstacles. Deemed illegitimate and unfit, Meggy's mother ships her from the countryside to live with her biological father in London. Witnessing the sights of England is a true eye opener for Meggy. Her father, an alchemist does not want her and thus she is twice rejected.Strong and brave, Meggy finds friends who are part of a traveling theater during pre-Shakespeare days.
lilibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Meggy's mother sent her to London to live with her father, who is not at all pleased to see this young girl who walks with canes show up on his doorstop. Alone with her disinterested father, she feels she has no friends except her pet goose who she is forced to give up. She is forced to be stronger than she ever thought she could be, and she discovers many neighbors and acquaintances who can be counted as friends.
cablesclasses on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Meggy Swann shares her experiences as a member of the lower class of England during the Elizabethan Era. Brought to her new found father, an alchemist, in London, Meggy learns to deal with her disability and how to make friends in a foreign atmosphere. Insightful historical fiction that introduces beliefs and customs from a time period far too removed from our modern society yet links similar societal problems of both eras.
abbylibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When Meggy Swann, a disabled girl in Elizabethan England, is sent to live with her father, she doesn't expect the cold, distant man who greets her. He's absorbed in his alchemy work and Meggy must prove herself useful. At this time, many people thought disabilities were caused by curses or demons and Meggy is taunted on the streets as she tries to go about her business. But Meggy's indomitable spirit shines through and she approaches all challenges with a sense of humor. Meggy's a wonderful strong character and Karen Cushman includes details about the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells that bring Elizabethan England to life. Of course, narrator Katherine Kellgren does a fantastic job and this book was a true pleasure to listen to.
KClaire on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
From the first sentences, through dialect and authentic description, Karen Cushman's newest historical fiction, Alchemy and Meggy Swann, conveys you to 1573. Elizabeth I is on the throne, but Shakespeare has not yet begun his plays. Medieval ideas are beginning to fade, and a new way of thinking and beliefs are starting to take hold. Meggy arrives from the country at her father's impoverished house on Crooked Lane, in London, with her goose Louise, and little else, only to discover that her alchemist father does not welcome her there. Meggy is crippled and uses two sticks to walk. She possesses a quick wit, and a sharp tongue, and uses them to protect herself, and to forge a new life in a crowded and dirty city. Cushman includes a quote by Carl Jung at the beginning of the story : "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed." Meggy the true alchemist in the story both transforms and is transformed through her choices, and the people she meets, during her struggles with life in London. This book includes a map of old London, and an author's note with historical resources. A fast, highly enjoyable read.
_Zoe_ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had very fond childhood memories of Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice by the same author, so I jumped on the chance to read an e-galley of this one, and I wasn't disappointed.I really enjoyed this book. Meggy Swann was raised by her beloved grandmother in a village outside of London during the reign of Elizabeth I. Her mother has no interest in her, so following her grandmother's death she's sent to live with her alchemist father. But when her father finds out that she's both female and crippled, he says that he has no use for her either. This is the story of Meggy's struggle to find a place for herself in an uncaring world, where people spit on her in the street and call her names because of her disability. She has understandably developed a prickly temperament to shield herself from the insults of others, and has difficulty opening up. I have to admit that I found her personality a bit obnoxious at first, but I did come to love her in the end.On the other hand, I loved the writing from the very beginning. Cushman has a way of making Elizabethan England come to life, so that I was gripped from the very first chapter. Given that I was reading in less-than-ideal conditions on a computer, it would have been easy to put the book down, but I found that the story kept me absorbed throughout.Because I hadn't read any of Cushman's work since I was maybe 11, I was a bit concerned that the story wouldn't have enough depth to hold my interest as an adult. That fear turned out to be entirely unfounded. I do wish the story had been longer only because I enjoyed it so much, but everything was developed and resolved satisfactorily in the short space there was. I'll definitely go back and read Cushman's other books that I missed between The Midwife's Apprentice and here, and I may even buy myself a physical copy of this one when it comes out in paperback.So I was personally completely satisfied with this book, and I think that other adults would like it as well. On the other hand, I've seen some other reviews saying that the language is too difficult for children, but since I read Cushman's other works as a child myself, I'm not convinced that this would be a problem. In fact, I often see people asking for books for children with high reading levels: there's a need for books that aren't too easy, but are still age-appropriate in terms of content. This book fits perfectly in that niche. Plus, it has a positive message that doesn't feel too in-your-face, and there's a section at the end explaining the historical setting, so it has good educational potential.In short, I really think Cushman has a winner here. This is a great book for children and adults.
rebecca191 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Born crippled, Meggy Swan was raised in a small English village by her loving grandmother. Her mother was unkind and wanted nothing to do with her, and the villagers were suspicious of people with disabilities. When her grandmother dies in 1573, Meggy¿s mother, eager to be rid of her, sends her to London to live with her father, whom Meggy has never met before.From the time she arrives in London, Meggy hates it and wishes she could return to her country village. The city is dirty and scary and confusing, and it is especially hard for her to travel around because of her disability. Her father, an alchemist, had thought his child was a son, and is disappointed by the arrival of a daughter, and a crippled one at that. Meggy feels lost, alone, and friendless. Her father is obsessed with his work of turning liquid into gold and wants little to do with his unwanted daughter. But soon Meggy learns that the city isn¿t an entirely terrible place, and even a crippled country girl like herself can make friends.Alchemy and Meggy Swan is another enjoyable middle grade historical novel by Karen Cushman. Unlike her previous books, which were set in the Medieval era, this book is set in Elizabethan London, and she brings the place and time to life with gritty and realistic detail. Meggy is a bit unlikable at first - she is a stubborn and unfriendly loner, as a result of a childhood in which she was despised by everyone except her grandmother. But it is enjoyable to see her grow from a friendless loner into a girl with many friends and a chance for a wonderful future. I recommend this book to readers who enjoyed previous books by the author or who like middle grade historical fiction.
MaowangVater on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When her beloved granny died, Margaret Swann is informed by her mother that her father has sent for her, and she¿s to go live with him in London. Meggy is shocked; she never knew that she had a father. Well, she knew that she must have had a father because everyone has or had one, but never in her thirteen years has her mother mentioned him to her. So she arrives in London with her only friend: her pet goose Louise. Louise has a sprung wing and cannot fly, just as Meggy has crooked legs and cannot walk. Using two walking sticks she can lurch forward from side to side painfully dragging her legs along with her, but she doesn¿t call it walking; she calls it ¿wabbling.¿London, when she arrives in 1573, does not impress her. It¿s crowded, it¿s noisy, it¿s filthy, it stinks, and they have dead men¿s heads hung on their bridge! ¿Ye toads and vipers!¿ she exclaims upon arrival at her father¿s house at the Sign of the Sun on Crooked Lane. Insult is added to injury when her father, Master Ambrose the Alchemist expresses his disappointment that she is not a son, wonders aloud if she is a crackbrain, and then walks away from her upstairs into his attic room. The only civil person she meets that day is Roger Oldham, Master Ambrose¿s assistant, a boy of about her own age, who is delighted to have just found a new job as a player with a troop of actors. Eventually Roger and Meggy will become friends and verbal sparring partners, but now with Roger leaving and her father¿Master Peevish¿as she thinks of him, obsessed with finding the secret of immortality, Meggy must find a way to care for herself in this challenging new world.
prkcs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1573, the crippled, scorned, and destitute Meggy Swann goes to London, where she meets her father, an impoverished alchemist, and eventually discovers that although her legs are bent and weak, she has many other strengths.
herbcat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A delightful little story (not as believable as Cushman's work usually is, but the characters are believable) about the poor in the Elizabethan age, when theater was just beginning in England. It is also the beginning of science in early experiments by alchemists who at least understood that the nature of a substance can be changed by chemical reaction.
WisteriaLeigh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Alchemy and Meggy Swannby Karen CushmanClarion Books978-0-547-23184Page Count: 176Ages: 10-15, grade 5-9The year is 1573 when Meggy Swann arrives in London after traveling in a wagon ¿between baskets of cabbages and sacks of flour.¿ Her companion and friend is a crippled white goose. And like the goose, Meggy does not walk, she waddles with the aid of two sticks to support her crippled legs. She is raised by her Gran after her mother turned her back on her. Now she is summoned to live with her dad, Master Peevish, an alchemist. An alchemist who makes it quite clear his transformations, his search for gold are paramount. Meggy must find her way alone. With willful determination she carries on, unaided, struggling as she learns to care for herself. She is angry with understandable reasons. She is befriended by a young boy, an actor, smitten by her angelic face. She has a gift of language, crude yet humorous. She can¿t help but spit out threats and insults with each searing word. You have to love this impish character Cushman has created. In one tirade Meggy aims her wrath at Roger as she says, ¿Go then you writhled, beetle-brained knave. You churl, you slug, you stony-hearted villain! May onions grow in your ears.¿ You can¿t help but chuckle as the author makes it so easy to visualize this hot-tempered gammin turning red faced, blowing off steam. If she could, she would probably stomp her foot! The streets of Elizabethan England come alive when you walk them with Meggy Swan, a delightfully quick witted soul on a virtuous mission. Karen Cushman is one of my favorite children¿s authors. Of her many works I especially liked, The Midwife¿s Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy. Both excellent. I highly recommend Alchemy and Meggy Swann for historical fiction bookshelves in classrooms, and libraries. A great read aloud and perfect for literature circles.
alyson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had mixed feeling about this. I loved Karen Cushman's other medieval characters, so I was excited about this book. I almost wished she had written a sequel to Matilda Bone instead. I think I was too worried about Meggy to really enjoy the story - still it works out and this is a nice tween read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book! Can't wait to read more of her books!
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