Many of you probably know Gregory Maguire as the author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. I discovered it a year or so after it was published in 1995 in the bargain section of the bookstore where I worked and remember how thrilling it was to read back then. Long a fan of fairy tales, I was amazed to learn that a meal could be made of a behind the scenes, adult visit to these stories and worlds. Since then, many authors have tried their hands at this new genre and Maguire has made a career of it. He set Snow White in Renaissance Italy with the Borgias as characters in Mirror, Mirror, took a sideways look at Cinderella in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and added a new character to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" in Matchless. Maguire started his career writing children's books and, post the phenomenal success of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and the three other books in this series, he has written a few more books for children, drawing on fairy tales (mixing them up, really) and mythical creatures like the Tooth Fairy. Now, with Egg & Spoon, Maguire has a new book for children (and adults) that draws on the rich and enchanting fairy tales of Russia. Egg & Spoon has been called a Scheherezade-ian, which is apt, as it reads like a Russian version of Adam Gidwitz's spectacular A Tale Dark and Grimm trilogy in which Hansel and Gretel travel though a meticulously stitched-together quilt of Grimm's fairy tales. With Egg & Spoon, Maguire's story travels by rail, tornado and on chicken foot over the vast Russian landscape, threading characters and events from Russian fairy tales into the plot and creating a world and story that will linger in your memory long after closing the book.
Egg & Spoon begins with the narrator, who we eventually learn is an imprisoned monk, once an advisor to the tsar who was researching this question: Would the Firebird, "flying across Russia in the strength of the noonday sun" cast a shadow?" It may seen arcane and possibly insane, but that adds both to the fairy-tale and Russian-nes of the story. Set in a Russia that is beset by floods and waiting for snow that never comes, the narrator tells the story of Elena, an impoverished thirteen-year-old living in the wasted village of Miersk, which has suffered devastating losses of fairy-tale proportions. Elena is almost helpless, watching her ailing mother slip closer to death, her older brothers having been conscripted into the tsar's army and moved to Moscow for work, respectively. Her fate changes when a lightning strike takes out a trestle bridge and the train carrying Ekaterina, who goes by Cat, a privileged thirteen-year-old who has left her boarding school in London to travel with her great-aunt to St. Petersberg for a grand party celebrating the godson of the tsar, Prince Anton. While the bridge is being rebuilt, the two begin a wary friendship over a book of fairy tales, Cat standing in the doorway of her train car, Elena on the platform. However, when Cat shows Elena the Fabergé egg that has been commissioned especially as a gift for Prince Anton (a musical, egg-shaped diorama of characters from Russian fairy tales) at the very moment that the train begins moving again, an amazing thing occurs.
Cat goes tumbling backwards off the train and into the wooded countryside and Elena, in an effort to save her and the priceless egg, lunges after her, leaving her on the train and, for a time, mistaken for Cat. What happens to Cat and Elena over the course of the novel, how the travel alone and eventually together and who they end up traveling with, is amazing and marvelous. Baba Yaga, the wicked witch from Russian folktales who lives in a house that stands on enormous chicken legs and eats children, is a wonderful, often curious character, along with her talking cat Mewster, in Egg & Spoon. She serves as a sort of comic relief, taking the reader out of the story at times with her references to contemporary things like playing bingo in Brooklyn and cat's eyes glasses and only occasionally takes the familiar role of guiding adult in the story. The Firebird makes a dazzling appearance in the story and the egg that the bird leaves behind becomes a companion to the bejeweled egg. There is also an Ice Dragon that cannot sleep because of the constant, loud wants of the human race. This anxiety drives him to chew on the icebergs that surround him, causing the flooding that is dampening Russia. There are giant matryoshka nesting dolls, another gift for Prince Anton, that are seen near the end of the novel floating down the river, soldiers, who were once the teeth of the Ice Dragon, happily traveling inside them.
Leigh Bardugo, author of the Grisha Trilogy (my reviews here), brilliant YA fantasy novels set in an imagined, tsarist Russia that also incorporate mythical characters from Russian folklore, appropriately reviewed Egg & Spoon in the New York Times Book Review. I have to be honest and admit that, while I really did enjoy this book, I struggled with Egg & Spoon because, while Maguire uses traditional folktales and mythology, the pace of his story and the path of the main characters is less traditional. As Bardugo says of the book, "Though the story bears some marks of a heroic quest, it is really a series of dreamy, expertly painted vignettes, set pieces both absurd and spectacular."
Cat and Elena don't behave in ways that we have come to expect from strong, smart heroines in fantasy novels. There is no central, dark evil force working against the heroines other than the poverty and privilege, along with the harsh country, that they have been born into. I am curious to see what kind of reader picks up Egg & Spoon and whether she or he sticks with it. I think it would make a perfect bedtime read aloud, slowly unfolding over many, many nights. As a side note, whether I actually get to read at work or not, I always have the book that I am currently reading with me when I am at work in the school library so that my students might see me reading and know that I am a reader, too. The eye-catching cover of Egg & Spoon lead me to tell a group of third graders a bit about the story, Baba Yaga and the Firebird. Intrigued, one little girl borrowed my copy and is making her way through it. To help give her context, I brought in a few books my my collection of fairy tales, several of which are illustrated by Gennady Spirin. For more, see below.
Gregory Maguire's other fairy tale retellings for children:
If you are interested in Russian Fairy Tales, don't miss the picture books illustrated by Gennady Spirin.
For a great version of one of the many Baba Yaga (and Vasilisa) stories, don't miss Marianna Mayer and K.Y. Craft's picture book:
Source: Review Copy