Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon
Gregory Maguire
Candlewick, 2014 475 pgs
Grades 5-8

The final days of tsarist Russian finds peasant Elena starving while nursing her dying mother in her depressing rural village.  A long abandoned train surprisingly arrives in the village and with it Ekaterina, a wealthy young lady on her way to meet the Tsar 's nephew as a possible marriage candidate.  The two strike up an unlikely friendship mostly out of boredom.  The story really gets rolling when the girls mistakenly trade places, placing Elena in the now moving train and Ekaterina abandoned in the starving village.  Elena manages to fool her elderly poor-sighted aunt and begins to learn the ways of the gentry.  She discovers the legendary Firebird on route to Saint Petersberg and witnesses it laying an egg and dying.  Meanwhile, Ekaterina, while lost in the woods, gets picked up by Baba Yaga, her talking cat, and house moving about on chicken legs and presents to the famous witch the Fabrige egg meant as a gift for the Tzar.  The girls are reunited in Saint Petersberg at the ball in honor of the Tsar's cousin, Prince Anton.  Anton is a restless soul and befriends the two girls.  Saint Petersberg is suffering from extreme flooding brought about by the awakening of the legendary Russian ice-dragon.  The three young people travel with Baba Yaga in her unusual house to retrieve the Firebird's egg, put the ice-dragon back to sleep and to restore Russia back to its natural harmony, meeting more unusual characters and facing life-changing challenges along the way.

No one knows their way around a folktale quite like Gregory Maguire.  He is well known for his renderings on famous folktales for adults (Wicked) and humorous stories for kids.  Egg & Spoon is a mixture of the two.  Russian folklore is fabulous and fascinating and often over- looked.  Its really cool that Maguire brings it to the public consciousness.  Egg & Spoon reminds me of a Russian American Gods (Gaiman), bringing together many Russian legends.  There is humor throughout the book, which helps to lighten the very serious themes.  Baby Yaga certainly steals the show and is the most interesting character I have come in contact with for some time.Throughout the folktale weaves history, specifically the events leading to the Russian Revolution and class struggle.  Coincidentally I am simultaneously reading The Family Romanov (Fleming), a superbly written account of the family of the last Tzar of Russia and the revolution.  I love it when my reading overlaps like this!  Egg & Spoon is Maguire at his best.  It is brilliantly written and every word is intentional.  Several time I had to stop reading to re-read a brilliant passage.  My only question with this book is: who is the audience?  Like Wicked and other adult titles by Maguire the book is dense and reads very slowly.  I don't think many kids would have the patience to get through it or understand much of what is going on.  This book would never have been published pre-Wicked, but Maguire can write what he likes now.  I bought this book for my library because I serve a Russian community who may be interested in it and Maguire's adult fans will be looking for it.  I don't think kids will pick it off the shelf and dig in.  This said, I can answer my own question concerning Egg & Spoon's audience.  Its crusty old children's librarians, such as myself, with an interest in folklore.  It certainly works for me that Maguire can now write what he likes, because we both like the same things.  I just don't know any young people that share our sentiments.

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