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Alchemy and Meggy Swann Hardcover – April 26, 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Product Description
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.

Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Karen Cushman, Author of Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Dear Amazon Reader,

Alchemy and Meggy Swann started, as all my books do, with a "what if?" What if there was a man who was a poisoner in Queen Elizabeth's court? Why did he do it? How did he feel about what he did? The idea of making the man an alchemist came later. What great cover, I thought, for a poisoner. So I immersed myself in the arcana of alchemy and the alchemist's search for transformation.

And then, as in all my books, the focus changed to a girl--his daughter--how she felt and what she did. Transformation? Did Meggy seek to be transformed? How and why, I wondered. And so her wabbling was born.

My husband once pointed out that The Ballad of Lucy Whipple told my own story of moving to California when I was ten, which came out in a book forty years later. The Loud Silence of Francine Green, and in a way, Matilda Bone, about a girl raised by a priest, and Rodzina, about a Polish girl from Chicago like me, are all my own stories. How then, I wondered recently, is Meggy's story my own? As I wondered, I took two more ibuprofen for my painful right knee. And there it was--after dealing over the past five years with my own pain and limited mobility, I gave these problems to poor Meggy. It seems I cannot write a book that does not in some way reflect me and my feelings and my life.

And just as Meggy is transformed in ways she did not anticipate, so too did my story transform into hers. She took on a life of her own, and breathed on the page. I hope you enjoy meeting her and watching her grow in strength and awareness.


Karen Cushman

(Photo © Crescent Studio, Vashon,WA)

From School Library Journal

Starred Review. Grade 5–8—Cushman adds another intrepid, resourceful, courageous girl to her repertoire in this tale set in 16th-century London. Meggy Swann, deformed since birth, walks with a halting gait using two sticks. Many believe she is cursed by the devil. The 13-year-old has lived in a small village over an alehouse run by her mother and has only ever felt love from her deceased grandmother. Now she has been sent for by her father in London. The astounding sights, sounds, and smells of the city accost her, and readers see and hear them all through Cushman's deft descriptive and cinematic prose. When her father finally sees her, he is disappointed to discover that she is just a disabled girl. Roger Oldham, her alchemist father's apprentice, is leaving to become a player and she is to take his place. Meggy meets a varied cast of characters, and Roger remains her good friend despite her ill-tempered treatment of him at times. Her father, whom she nicknames Master Peevish, is single-minded in his focus, oblivious to all else. In order to do his life's work, he needs money and Meggy overhears him plotting what she believes is a murder to obtain it. Fearing his head might wind up on a pole on London Bridge, she is determined to stop him. 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.—Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ
(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Clarion Books (April 26, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547231849
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547231846
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,284,639 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Karen Cushman was born in Chicago, Illinois and lives now on Vashon Island west of Seattle, Washington. She received an M.A. in human behavior and one in museum studies. Ms. Cushman has had a lifelong interest in history. She says, "I grew tired of hearing about kings, princes, generals, presidents. I wanted to know what ordinary life was like for ordinary young people in other times." Research into medieval English history and culture led to the writing of her first two novels, the Newbery Honor book CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY and the Newbery Medal-winner THE MIDWIFE'S APPRENTICE. She is also the author of MATILDA BONE, THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE, RODZINA, and most recently ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I don't normally seek out historical fiction, but I make an exception for Karen Cushman's books. I still smile when I think about the heroine of Catherine, Called Birdy, for example. Like Meggy Swann, the main character in Cushman's new book, Birdy is just so completely lively and real. Cushman has a knack for created characters who seem like someone you know--even as they fit into their historical setting. And that setting will also seem comfortably real. You never feel as if Cushman is a history teacher thinly disguised as a storyteller. She is simply a storyteller who sets her tales in vanished eras.

Cushman doesn't mind taking risks when it comes to writing main characters who are unpleasant, either. But like Mary in the classic, A Secret Garden, these girls tend to become more likable as they face their challenges and grow up a bit. In the case of Meggy Swann, those challenges are formidable: Meggy is a cripple in Elizabethan times, an age when many still thought that physical deformities were the mark of the devil and even a sign of witchcraft.

Meggy's mother, a hot-tempered barmaid, had shuffled the child off on her mother for years. Now that the old woman has died, Meggy's mother washes her hands of the girl, sending her to live with her long-vanished father, an alchemist, in London. When he sees Meggy, he doesn't want her because she is not a boy and is imperfect, besides. Meggy's only friend is a goose named Louise.

When our story begins, Meggy has no idea how to care for herself because her grandmother did everything for her. She is also frightened of the big city and has no social skills. Yet, although some Londoners are superstitious and mocking, others are kindly and reach out to Meggy.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
We meet Meggy newly arrived by cart in Elizabethan London, with her pet goose. She is alone, rejected, and confused.

I found the beginning confusing as well. It's an unfortunate way to be introduced to Meggy, at her most peevish and helpless. We vaguely and eventually learn that she uses two walking sticks, that in fact she is in this strange place because she was summoned by her father, who thought he was sending for a hardy son rather than a crippled daughter. Her father is an alchemist, dedicating every ounce of his energy to discovering the elixir of life and the method to transmute other metals into gold. He barely considers his own belly, let alone his daughter's.

Meggy has never before been to London, so we discover it with her, on her challenging walking sticks, not knowing the places to go or avoid. Many people fear the ill and disabled, adding to her troubles. With time, she becomes stronger and more useful to her father, working the bellows or fetching his supplies, and develops friendships. In her adversity, she finds strength and self-sufficiency.

There are vivid descriptions of various chemical reactions that tantalized the pursuit of alchemy, of the various vendors of London in 1573, and of dramatic plays of the time, when Meggy befriends a group of players. I thought it was interesting that Meggy had a goose, and was disappointed when that subplot just petered out.

There is much to appreciate here: though I had trouble understanding Meggy at first, she grows into a strong, admirable young woman. And, it's a great introduction to the time and place. The book is rated Young Adult, and that is because the language is somewhat difficult; there is no mature content. It would be appropriate for any child skilled enough to handle the vocabulary.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Excellent portrayal of a time and a place. Nobody does that better than Karen Cushman. She captures and evokes the cadences and sounds, the sights and scenery of an Elizabethan city that is so different from anything children of today have ever experienced that readers will be drawn into Meggy Swann's world by its sheer novelty, and because of that novelty, they will want to stay, read, and further explore.

At the same time, there is a kind of universality to Meggy's plight that many kids of any era can relate to, ie. not being sure if a parent loves you because, or in spite of, who you are. Feeling taken advantage of by an unstable parent in dubious circumstances. Having incredible - or even small - physical challenges that impact both daily existence and growing up. Wanting to have friends, and yet being outwardly almost brazenly willing to do without rather than express the need. I think girls and boys will appreciate the story equally, and also think it make an excellent read aloud for one or a class full.

I would not categorize Alchemy and Meggy Swann as a young adult book - despite the vocab, I think it would appeal to, and hold the interest of upper elementary readers.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Wow! Like Cushman's other books, this one vividly evokes the time period and features a strong female character. It is a heartwarming story of redemption and personal growth, with some excitement thrown in to keep the plot going. The period details liberally strewn throughout give a better feel for the time period (after Elizabeth I but before Shakespeare) than a history textbook, making this another wonderful "living history" book by this author.

My only reservation in recommending this book is that the front-matter describes this book as targeted at 10-14 year olds. The plot is appropriate for this age range, but unless it's used as a read-aloud, it would be a tough read for kids at the younger end of this range. Heck, it would be a tough read for many 15 year olds, too! The problem lies in the language, which is highly authentic. Not only the dialogue reflects the time period, but even the general narrative prose (which is in the third person). Children unfamiliar with Elizabethan English (such as you find in Shakespeare) would really struggle with much of this. A simple example is this: Meggy asks, "What will you, Puppy?" To understand this, a child would have to know that "will" used to mean "want," and that "Puppy" is Meggy's on-the-spot made-up nickname for Roger. I think most children would just assume that she is asking something like, "What will you do?" (My child, reading over my shoulder, commented, "I would assume that!")

Not only archaic language, but also archaic syntax and vocabulary fill this book. A child would need to be exceedingly clever or have ready familiarity with a dictionary to grasp the plethora of obscure words in here...for example, a brief glance through two pages yields "rushlight," "kirtle," "wits," "belike," "fie upon.
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