Friday, April 24, 2015

Egg and Spoon

Author:  Gregory Maguire

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3, "B")

Audience:  5th Grade and Up

This whimsical youth novel by Wicked Author Gregory Maguire defies categorizing:  Part folk/fairytale, part fantasy, part allegory, but full-on creative entertainment.  I had never read anything quite as charming or challenging before.

The overall story is one of mistaken identity, Prince and Pauper-style.  It is turn-of-the-century (1900) Tsarist Russia, and impoverished villager Elena Rudina finds herself exchanging places with Princess Ekaterina ("Cat") on a train bound for St. Petersburg.  Along the way, the reader encounters the harsh realities of peasant life, along with the delightful Russian folklore of Baba Yaga (the wise-cracking, time-traveling witch whose house walks about on chicken legs), the Fire Bird (a Russian Phoenix), Faberge eggs, nesting dolls, soldiers, and an Ice Dragon.

Maguire's writing is quirky, funny, and wonderful:

"We're all imprisoned in our own parallel lives, thought Cat.  Yet Elena and I, without quite getting to be true friends, have accidentally shared our lives.  Now I can't even help caring about her mother.  It's kind of a curse, friendship."  -page 211

"The izbas and the chapel and barns of Miersk, all hewn logs and twig-work and tilting roofs appeared drifted into place.  The effect was of a pleasantly organic mess as built by myopic Canadian beavers."  -page 212

"I should have thought travel might have broadened you a little.  I see you are just a little buzzing factory of selfishness, the way most children are."  -page 308

But his real coup d'etat is the enhancement of Russian folk-witch Baba Yaga.  One can never be quite sure if she is on one's side or not, but she is always entertaining:

"Drink up, my dear.  I find borscht a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside."  -page141
"You're not going to drink the Kool-Aid?"  -page 151
"Let's have Cheerios.  They haven't been invented yet.  You'll love them."  -page166

"The witch threw open a window and leaned out.  Her black-clad derriere stuck up like a cushion in a mortuary."  -page 217

"The witch swiveled her head, sniffing with her shark fin of a nose."  -page 218

"Clutching a scarlet plush tarantula, Baba Yaga was snoring in her trundle bed."  -page 439

The morality of the play involves a not-too-thinly-veiled reference to global warming, or at the very least, environmental responsibilities:

"The World is sickening.  The ailment affects snow tigers in Siberia and humans in the cities.  It beggars the boll weevils and shrivels the winter wheat.  It dances the figures of ancient belief out of their stories and even threatens the Renaissance of the Fire Bird."  -page 371

The solution?

"They didn't know.  It had something to do with trying, though.  Trying to limit their own greedy "I wants."  Maybe trying to help satisfy someone else's "I wants."  Do without their green silk gowns, sell a palace or two, supply some fretful infants a honeybucket's worth of goat's milk."  -page 421

Baba Yaga's wisdom sums it up best:

"The curse of being human is that there is always something more to do, while you are alive."  -page 442

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