Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

Meggy Swann can swear with the best of them: “ye toads and vipers,” “gleeking goat’s bladder,” “swag-bellied maggot,” and “bloviating windbag” are some of her favorites. If these sound like strange epithets, mayhap you are not from the late 16th century like 13-year-old Meggy, the heroine of Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman.

Meggy was born with legs that “did not sit right in her hips,” and, as a result, has to use two walking sticks to move around with an “awkward swinging gait.” Meggy calls it “wabbling,” a lighthearted nickname for a condition that has brought her ridicule from her rural village, for she lives during a time when a physical handicap is seen as a punishment for a sinful nature. As a result, Meggy has developed a tough hide and a large lexicon of threats.

Meggy’s life changes when she is summoned by her father, Master Ambrose, whom she has never met, to go to London and assist him in his business. He is a surly man (whom Meggy dubs “Mr. Peevish), obsessed with alchemy and discovering the secret to immortality. Master Ambrose lives in a crooked house in London, the sights and smells of which Meggy finds both terrifying and mesmerizing. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of this Elizabethan city, Meggy uncovers a sinister plot and must use all of her cunning and talents to try to put a stop to it.

I found Meggy a delightful character to read about, but her lot in life was somewhat painful to experience. Kindness was more of a stranger than cruelty or indifference in her time. However, Meggy’s efforts at righting injustice do not go unrewarded, and the book ends on a satisfying note of hope and friendship. Recommended for ages nine and up. If you like this, you'll love Cushman's Newbery-honor book, Catherine, Called Birdy, set in the 13th century.