SILVER SPRING, Md, September 1, 2014 – Like so many other adult novelist have done, Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, has thrown his hat into the young adult arena with his latest novel, Egg & Spoon. Although any fan of Maguire’s will enjoy this book, the main difference between his adult fiction and this book is his underage protagonists.
Elena lives a miserable life as a Russian peasant in a land where the crops are rotting in the field and, in the classic tradition of the great Russian novelist, misery befalls her village at every turn. Her father has been killed, her mother is dying, her brother, Alexei, has been put into service for the local noble family, and her brother, Luka, has been conscripted into the Tsar’s army. At 13 years old, for all intensive purposes, she is an orphan.
Ekaterina, or Cat, could not be more different. She is a well-bred girl, who speaks not only her native Russian, but also French and English. She has never known hunger, and she is traveling from her boarding school in London to St. Petersburg with her great-aunt, her governess, and a butler. Furthermore, the private train is taking her to attend a ball being held by the Tsar to find a prospective bride for his godson, Prince Anton.
–Cat’s train gets stuck at the station in Elena’s village for several days, and the girls secretly become friends. Elena is on the train with Cat when it suddenly departs. Cat falls from the open door into the snow. With Cat gone, Elena is afraid she’ll be blamed for the other girl’s disappearance. Before she knows how to get the train to go back for Cat, she finds herself confused for the girl, but then decides to willfully continue the lie.
Meanwhile, Cat finds herself fleeing Elena’a village and unexpectedly over the threshold of the classic Russian fairytale child-eating witch, Baba Yaga. However, the world’s magic is failing, the world is dying, the seasons are mixed up, and it affects Baba Yaga. She believes Elena and Cat are somehow connected to the problems. Instead of being her next victim, Cat becomes Baba Yaga’s partner as they set out in the witch’s invisible walking house to St. Petersburg to find Elena, the Tsar and the reason behind the fading magic.
It would be an over simplification to say this is simply a prince and pauper story. While the mandatory element of switching places is certainly met, the story is complicated by the addition of Baba Yaga and the lost magic quest. Aside from the anachronistic Baba Yaga, who really dominates the scenes she is in, the narrative prose certainly maintains some of the sense of epic storytelling of the classic Russian novel, but more accessible for a modern audience.
The biggest criticism for this book would be the recommended reading age. The publisher says that this is a book for 12+. This must be largely due to the 13 year-old age of three of the central characters. While it is a quick read, at almost 500 pages, many 12 year-olds would be intimidated by the length of the book. Also, the writing level seems higher than many young adult novels on the shelves. While it is always a good thing to be challenging the vocabulary limits of students, this book may send them to the dictionary more than any other book they have recently read to look up words like umbrage, kopek, izba, largesse, or coltish.
Overall, readers will enjoy the story and the prose. Adults who do not usually enjoy reading stories about children will find that the younger characters are fully developed and are not angsty teens pining away. Baba Yaga also takes over whenever she is on the page, regardless of how many children are accompanying her. Despite what could be an intimidating length for some, the novel is well paced and readers have no trouble making their way through relatively short chapters. Egg & Spoon is a book to add to your wishlist for your next trip to the bo-okstore.
Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire (ISBN: 978-0-7636-7582-0) will be published on September 9, 2014 by Candlewick Press. It will be available in hardcover, ebook and audiobook.