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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire (Reviewed by Joshua Redlich)

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Order Egg And Spoon HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Gregory Maguire is the author of the incredibly popular books in the Wicked Years series, including Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which inspired the musical. He is also the author of several books for children, including What-the-Dickens, a New York Times bestseller. Gregory Maguire lives outside Boston.

OVERVIEW: Elena Rudina lives in the impoverished Russian countryside, and there is no food. But then a train arrives in the village, a train carrying a cornucopia of food, untold wealth, and a noble family destined to visit the Tsar in Saint Petersburg—a family that includes Ekaterina, a girl of Elena’s age. When the two girls’ lives collide, an adventure is set in motion, an escapade that includes mistaken identity, a monk locked in a tower, a prince traveling incognito, and—in a starring role only Gregory Maguire could have conjured—Baba Yaga, witch of Russian folklore, in her ambulatory house perched on chicken legs.

FORMAT/INFO: Egg And Spoon by Gregory Maguire is a 496 page standalone YA novel based on Russian folklore. It was first published on September 9, 2014 by Candlewick Press and is now available in hardcover, paperback, and as an audiobook and e-book.

ANALYSIS: Having grown up a huge fan of the animated film Anastasia, I have always been fond of stories rooted in Russian history and folklore; and after falling in love with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, I was eager to read more about Baba Yaga in particular. When I finally discovered that Gregory Maguire’s acclaimed YA novel Egg And Spoon was entirely based on Russian mythology and featured the witch as a primary character, I knew I had to read it immediately. If only I had that epiphany sooner.

Egg And Spoon is a truly beautiful novel. Narrated by a minor character that readers don’t meet until late in the book, the experience of reading Egg And Spoon is akin to being told a story, with plenty of interjected thoughts and opinions that afford the narrator a personality of his own. Perhaps the only part of the book that I wasn’t completely taken with was the narrator’s magical ability to know the events of the two protagonists’ lives without being there to witness them firsthand, but I did find it refreshing to read a book told from the point of view of a character only minimally involved in the events of the story, as first person narratives are most often told by main characters.

The story follows two girls from very different worlds, one a peasant from a starving village and the other an aristocrat on her way to a ball. When the privileged Ekaterina “Cat” Ivanovna de Robichaux’s train is forced to make an unplanned stop in Elena Rudina’s impoverished village, the two girls’ lives are forever changed. What transpires is an accidental swap that lands the superstitious country bumpkin in the shoes of nobility and the educated London schoolgirl alone and hungry in the Russian countryside. And thus begins the two girl’s quests to reach the Czar, Elena to ask for her brother’s release from service so he can care for their dying mother and Cat to return the valuable Faberg√© egg that was intended for him as a gift.

Throughout the book, I was constantly being reminded of other favorites: the detailed setting evokes the beautifully wrought, Slavic atmosphere of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted; the lighthearted tone is reminiscent of Cathrynne Valente’s Fairyland books—with the two protagonists often bearing striking similarities to her heartless September; and the eccentric old hag that is MaGuire’s representation of Baba Yaga is in many ways just a battier female version of T. H. White’s Merlin. Then, at the very core of the novel, are well-known Russian stories, woven together with a tale of mistaken identities √† la Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. And yet, despite the familiar aspects of Egg And Spoon, the book never once feels anything less than original. Rather, reading Egg And Spoon was like falling in love with books all over again.

While there was no part of the novel I didn’t enjoy, my favorite were easily any scene that included Baba Yaga. In fact, she is quite possibly my new favorite character. Whether or not you have grown up with stories of the famous Russian witch who eats children and lives in a house that walks on chicken legs, you will undoubtedly fall in love with the eccentric old hag that is Gregory MaGuire’s representation of her. In the nature of Merlin as he is portrayed in T. H. White’s The Once & Future King, Baba Yaga seems to live outside of time.

Throughout the novel—of which, I was happy to discover, she has a prominent role—Baba Yaga is constantly making references to people, places, and things that have not happened yet, or commenting on attributes of well-known historical figures from long ago that only a close friend would know. While many of the references will be lost on younger readers, as they are for the story’s two protagonists and undoubtedly were for me on at least several occasions, they make this the sort of story that a parent reading to a child can truly enjoy. Additionally, it is the measure of a good children’s book if it can hold up to its memory when being reread as a teenager or adult, and these little Easter eggs are sure to delight and surprise repeat readers.

CONCLUSION: If I had read Egg And Spoon as a child, it could easily have replaced The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter as the book to turn me on to reading fantasy. Magic, adventure, humor, and emotion blend with relatable characters and superior storytelling to offer a tale that can be reread endlessly without ever getting stale. I personally am look forward to my next visit with Cat, Elena, and Baba Yaga. A highly recommended read.

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