Title: Egg & Spoon
Author: Gregory Maguire
Genre: Children’s Books, Children’s Literature, Fairytale, Fantasy, YA, Modern Fairytale, Adaptation, Historical Literature.
“Think of egg and spoon. If there is an egg, well, fine. You eat. Unless you use your spoon to hold the egg out of my reach. Does being in possession of a spoon give you more right to the egg?”
When the author is man who wrote Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror, Mirror, and who has carved himself a spot in the genre of revising and writing novels inspired by children’s stories, I was expecting great things when I picked up Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire. The blurb promised me a tale of weaving ‘together of Russian folklore, mythical creatures and fantastical characters’ and I was also intrigued by the cover art featuring typical symbols of ‘Russia’ – a Firebird, a Russian stacking doll and Saint Basil’s Cathedral. So, I bought it and read it in under a week. And yes, this is a modern fairytale with a interesting blend of Russian folklore against a 20th century historical story. And when you have the figure of Tsar Nicholas II arguing with Baba Yaga, the Slavic witch, what more do you want?
This story follows a few plot lines, but mainly focuses on the tale of misidentity and a sort of Prince and the Pauper-scenerio. We start off with a monk being jailed, and relaying the story of when two worlds collide and the aftershocks of such a collision. Elena Rudina lives in the provincial and highly impoverished Russian countryside with her dying mother. Her father has been dead for years, and one brother has been conscripted by the Tsar into the army, whilst the other has been taken as a servant. Elena is desperate for a chance to start a new life. And when a train breaks down just outside her village, a train carrying a noble family destined for Saint Petersburg and an audience with the Tsar himself, Elena finds herself befriending a passenger. Ekaterina, or Cat, is of noble birth and standing, and despite initially finding Elena an amusing pastime, the two girls become firm friends. But after a freak accident concerning a Faberge egg, Elena and Cat’s lives become switched. And from a discovery of the firebird’s egg, and Cat stumbling upon Baba Yaga in her house perched atop of oversized chicken legs, this story sets the scene for a magical adventure across the wilds of Russia and The North.
So, what did I love about this book? The story is highly vivid and the writing is rich in imagery and description. Maguire certainly knows how write a fantastical world, and how to make it feel even realistic. As a Russian historian, I loved the time period in which it was set, and Maguire incorporation of Slavic and Russian folklore figures. Both Elena and Cat were girls who grew up and changed as the book progressed, and they became more likable, as Cat becomes humbler whilst Elena becomes more assertive. And the figure of Baba Yaga – a very popular supernatural being from Old Russian tales – becomes easily one of the favourites, as her no-nonsense view on the world is refreshing, especially when it helps cut down the fairytale element.
The book also has some very life-affirming and positive messages. There is emphasis on family values, not losing yourself, and being open to different cultures and not narrow-minded. But the most obvious message comes in the form of the Ice Dragon. Towards the end of the book, Elena, Baba Yaga, Cat and others travel to the North Pole to visit an ice dragon, who cannot sleep due to humanity’s complaints and overwhelming needs, and is subsequently melting the ice with his fire. And if this isn’t a clear message about global warning, then I don’t know what is. But after the children assure the ice dragon that they would cut down on their own greed, he seems to fall asleep. To me, this is such a clever way of writing about anti-materialism and being more mindful of the planet’s needs. And for younger readers to read this, and perhaps take it in without realising it, it certainly has that moralistic ground that fairytales always have a base in.
But I did have some criticisms over this story. For a start, the plot can be very convoluted at times, and sometimes seem very long-winded. Not much happens in the first third of the book, and despite the action picking up later, this long-winded introduction does affect it in the long run, as it made it sometimes hard to follow, hard to read and just hard to digest. I also disliked Baba Yaga’s references to modern-day culture. She mentions Kool-Aid, Cheerios and musicals that were written long after tsarist Russia, and despite her stating that her magical powers allows her to travel between time periods, it completely lost the Imperial Russian feel of the book, and made the writing feel awkward.
But all-in-all, I did enjoy the book. The end was fairly satisfying and neat, as it brought the stories all together in one large fairytale mismatch, and all the characters parted after a period of growth. With a good mixture of both fictional and real historical characters, Maguire brought to life a well-written and overall fairly good piece of fairytale fun, and despite it being marketed for Young Adults, I would say that ages of 10+ could read, and enjoy it with ease.
But let me know if you’ve read Egg & Spoon! And what are your thoughts on modern/traditional fairytales?