Title: Alchemy and Meggy Swann
Author: Karen Cushman
Publisher: Clarion Books - Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Concepts: poverty, scarcity, class, economics of disability, discrimination, markets, apprenticeships, jobs
Review: Summoned from her distant village by a father she had never met, Meggy Swann arrived in London hungry, thirsty, and frightened, with her only friend in the world (a goose) in tow. Her father quickly shunned her, for he had expected a hearty son to assist him in his alchemist’s laboratory, and Meggy was neither a boy nor hearty. Born with a disability in her hip joints that caused her to walk with a waddling gait and intense pain, Meggy had endured ridicule and insults most of her life, to which she responded with a dour attitude and frequent isolation.
Having no money to return home and no place else to go, Meggy stayed with her father. He was so absorbed, though, in his quest to create the elixir of life that would transform inexpensive metal into gold, he gave her no care and showed her no kindness. Growing hunger forced Meggy to navigate the gritty and bustling streets in search of food, an outing that served as her first step in making her own transformation from despair into hope. Along the way Meggy would need to make some difficult choices about doing the next right thing, especially when she discovered that her father had become embroiled in a scheme involving murder.
A feisty lead character and interesting Elizabethan-era context add real substance to this work of historical fiction. Cleverly intertwined throughout the book are several economics themes related to the structural impediments that Meggy faces, especially poverty and discrimination, and the vehicles which help her and her new friends to survive, especially the marketplace and work in apprenticeships. These themes come wrapped in an entertaining tale that is likely to leave readers grateful for the today’s amenities and creature comforts.
Review by: Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children