Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (YA Historical Fiction)

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann   

Karen Cushman (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung

After the death of her gran, Margaret “Meggy” Swann is carted from Millford Village to London and unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of her father, Master Ambrose, the local alchemist.  Meggy is none too pleased with her new home: heads mounted on sticks and placed on a bridge, the smell of fish and sewage everywhere, and streets slick and slippery from horse droppings.  Ye toads and vipers!  What kind of place IS this London?  Between a mother who was pleased to see the back of her and a father who assumes she is a beggar upon their first introduction, Meggy has found herself in a rather unenviable position.  She is crippled, penniless, and friendless…unless you count her goose, Louise.  But Meggy is stronger than she thinks and with the help of a cooper, a printer, and a rather smitten player, she’ll not only save a life, but she’ll manage to save a soul as well.

From her first utterance of, “Ye toads and vipers”, I fell in love with Meggy Swann.  She is scrappy, sassy, resourceful, impish, loyal, and brave.  She is disabled (suffering from what we would today recognize as bilateral hip dysplasia), but doesn’t seek sympathy, pity, or charity.  In a time when deformity and illness were viewed as a direct judgment from God, it would have been easy for Meggy to become bitter from the taunts and jeers unmercifully thrown at her by villagers both young and old alike.  While in Millford Village, she was able to stay somewhat isolated and protected within her mother’s alehouse; however, in London her lameness is on full display and it is at this moment when we see Meggy’s pluck and spirit begin to emerge.  No longer will she be the meek victim of unfair slurs and prejudices.  While her father is busy transforming metals in his laboratorium, Meggy is experiencing her own transformation into a strong, proud, and confident young woman who refuses to let her circumstances define or limit her.

This story is set in 1573 London and Cushman successfully transports readers to the Elizabethan Era through her usage of period-appropriate language.  This requires having to adjust to the frequent occurrences of words such as naught (nothing), certes (certainly), mayhap (perhaps), belike (very likely), and sooth (truth), but given the age this book targets (12 years and above), the acclimation should be quick and painless.

There are so many lessons that one could glean from this book, but perhaps the most poignant was one that Meggy learned from a flightless goose: “Even Louise had given the girl something, the knowledge that one did not have to be perfect to be beauteous.”  And that is something worth remembering, be ye toad or viper.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

The Decoding of Lana Morris by Laura & Tom McNeal (YA)

It’s Tween and Teen Tuesday where we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book.

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The Decoding of Lana Morris  

Laura & Tom McNeal (Young Adult Fiction)

If you had one wish…just one…what would it be?

Sixteen-year old Lana Morris lives in a two-storied foster home that she shares with four special needs kids (Snicks for short) and her foster parents, Whit and Veronica.  Lana wishes for a different foster mother; she wishes to fit in with the cool kids; she wishes she didn’t have to live in Snick House; and she wishes she understood her feelings for Whit better.  Lana wishes for a lot of things and soon, after she visits Miss Hekkity’s Oddments & Antiques, she’ll have not just one wish, but 13.

First, I want to focus on the positive aspects of this book, which is the attention the McNeals devote to young people with special needs.  They give us insight into their daily lives and allow us to understand their challenges and individuality.  Too often society judges these amazing people by their outward appearance or behavior alone.  It is also heartwarming to see Lana’s role evolve from disparager to defender as she connects with her housemates and appreciates their uniqueness.

Unfortunately, the negative aspects of this book vastly outweigh the positives.  The McNeals make Veronica excessively cruel and evil for no apparent reason.  Her treatment of Lana is childish, snippy, and incredibly mean-spirited.  The authors provide no insight as to why this kind of person possesses such disdain and disregard for the children in her care.  We find out late in the book that she is unable to have children of her own.  So, are we then to assume that these children are somehow meant to fill a personal void or is she putting her own feelings aside and doing it out of selfless love for Whit?  Surely, she can’t be putting herself and these children through such torment for just a monthly stipend.

Additionally, and more disturbingly, is how the authors portray Whit.  Before Lana gains access to her “wishes”, Whit is a beloved, meek, and kind foster father.  The children adore him and Lana views him as a father (although her affections often overlap between familial and hormonal).  After her visit to Miss Hekkity’s, Whit inexplicably becomes increasingly salacious and lecherous toward Lana.  As a lonely teenage girl in want of a father figure, Lana is naturally drawn to Whit, but Whit’s reciprocation, and even encouragement, of her interest cross a very distinct line which is both disturbing and unsettling.  If the authors merely did this to shock their teen readers with provocative and edgy content, they handedly hit their mark.  What is supposedly a book about a teenage girl desperately trying to find love and acceptance dives abruptly into a world filled with infidelity, child exploitation, abuse, and neglect.

If I had one wish…just one…it would be that the McNeals had stayed a little truer to their book’s proposed purpose.  Unfortunately, the strong and encouraging themes of love, acceptance, and friendship are overshadowed by hate, jealousy, and lust and no amount of wishes can overcome that.

Rating: 2/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com