Josiah's Reviews > Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman
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May 25, 2011

it was ok
Read from May 24 to 25, 2011

"Do not greet the world with your fists up, sweeting. Give folks a chance."

—Meggy's gran, Alchemy and Meggy Swann, P. 8

Living in 16th century England is not easy for a crippled girl like Meggy Swann. Of course, it's much better than if she had lived only a few decades earlier, when lameness was almost universally considered a scourge from God, a black mark to torture the evil souls of witches and other such satanic creatures. By the time that Meggy Swann has come on the scene, such a doctrinal position is no longer officially espoused by the church, but there are many who believe in it no less firmly than in bygone days. To Meggy, being a physical cripple is a curse in more ways than that of just a pronounced lack of mobility; she faces scorn nearly every time that she appears in public, and all because of a birth defect over which she had no control.

Things get worse for Meggy Swann. Her mother, no longer wanting the responsibility of taking care of a young person with special physical needs, sends the girl off to the father—whom she has never before seen—in the bustling big city of London. Apparently the reason that he was willing to take Meggy at all is that her mother had carefully guarded the truth from him: he didn't know that his child was a daughter and not a son, and he didn't realize that she was crippled. Such a girl could hardly be of use assisting him in his alchemical experimentation, he figures, but it's too late now to send Meggy back to her mother.

Meggy's father is a cold, distant man, possessed of little kindness and almost no observable regard for his daughter's well-being. He shuts himself up in an upstairs room practically night and day, working his pseudo-scientific sleight-of-hand while trying to come up with the key to the mystery of transforming dross substances into the metal regarded as most precious of them all...gold. He has hopes for more than just that, though. Meggy's father believes that if he can learn the secret of physical transformation then he may also be able to change old age into youth, death into life, and physical infirmity into complete homeostasis. Meggy's father may not be a generous or kind man, but he has given his daughter something that she never before had in regard to her crippled body; he has given her hope that someday her situation may be different, that the possibility exists that she could eventually shed the heavy walking sticks that encumber her and walk, or even dance, on her own. Whether or not the basis for his claims are reasonable, it's the first time that Meggy has ever felt hope for herself, and it could be what saves her.

Meggy's father slowly begins to allow his daughter a bit more access to himself, as an assistant in his alchemy lab. As a result of her proximity to his work, though, Meggy overhears a nascent plot to kill the local baron with a poisonous mixture to be cooked up by her father. Meggy knows that she cannot stand idly by and allow a man to be murdered, even if her father is involved. But what can she do to get a rich, inaccessible man like the baron to listen to a poor crippled child? How can she alert the nobleman to the plot for his demise without betraying her father, her one guardian left in this world?

Meggy has some surprises coming her way in this story. Beaten down by life as she has been, she hasn't become completely bitter, and her willingness to see good in herself and others and act according to it gives her a chance to become something more than a poor girl attached to a father who doesn't want her any more than did her mother. There's something better out there for Meggy Swann, and this book, ultimately, is about her learning how to reach out and claim it as her future.

Karen Cushman does a superb job of researching and of integrating her research seamlessly into the plot of Alchemy and Meggy Swann. It doesn't feel like a heavily researched book while reading it, which only points to the skill of the author; I'm sure that she performed many long hours working on piecing together the accurate historical information for this book. For maintaining that standard of historical fiction, I would consider give two and a half stars to Alchemy and Meggy Swann.
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