Published September 9th 2014 by Candlewick Press
I loved this book. Oh how I loved this book. If I were to count the ways, I’d be counting all the stars in the sky. Okay, now I’m just exaggerating. But really, I loved this book.
The witch turned this way and that. “I think I’ve kept my figure, don’t you?” she asked Mewster.
“Who else would want it?”
“Don’t be snarky.” She batted her eyelashes at her reflection. “I do believe I have my mother’s eyes.”
“Maybe it’s time to give them back. Your mother’s been dead since the reign of Oleg the Incontinent.”
This is a difficult book to summarize and I don’t think I’ll be able to do justice to the story inside but I’ll make an effort regardless. Elena Rudina is a Russian peasant; her father’s dead, her mother’s ailing and in almost a coma, one of her brothers was taken away by the local lord and the other one pressed into service by the Tsar. There is no food except what can be scrounged from the winter-eaten fields and pathways of their rapidly emptying village. Elena’s only companions are a doctor who has bad bread but a heart of gold and an old woman, Grandma Onna, whose grip on sanity loosened a century or so ago. So life is tough. Then comes a train, forced to stop by the village due to necessary repairs being done at a bridge ahead. In the train is a girl of Elena’s age, Ekaterina. She is going to St. Petersburg with her aged aunt, her English governess, and a French butler. They’re traveling in the height of luxury. Things happen and Ekaterina gets left behind in the village while Elena is on the train traveling to meet the Tsar. More things happen and Baba Yaga, whose anachronistic speech is my favourite thing ever, her chicken house, the Tsar’s godson, Elena, Ekaterina and Mewster, Baba Yaga’s indentured cat are on their way to return winter to Russia.
The story is told by Brother Uri and this framing is really successful in the way Uri’s tone is accessible to both younger readers and older ones. Uri himself is a visible character but is able to fade or rather remove his presence during the narration so it doesn’t feel as though you are being told a story but rather as though you are living it. There is a certain quirkiness, a wryness to Uri’s tone that is wonderful to read.
The book presents both sides of the story: the rich privileged life that Ekaterina leads without thought to her poorer counterpart, the portrayal of hunger, and the way Uri manages to tell the story without soapboxing about any particular topic. The Tsar is not vilified but he is not exactly left scott-free either. The writing is brilliant, the pacing is wonderful. There is humour in the book, there are introspective moments, there is sadness without melodrama. The writing flows like silk and Maguire’s brilliance as a storyteller shines through with each sentence. To be able to write like him is a dream.
I love how Baba Yaga is portrayed. In many other books, she is portrayed as this child-eating horror and while her fangs are not retracted in this book, Maguire manages to give her a heart when other authors would say she had none. In fact, each character in this novel, no matter how insubstantial their role, is exactingly individuated. I could see each one in my mind. Aunt Sophia, Miss Bristol, the Butler, heck even the deputy Lieutenant gained significance in my mind.
Sometimes a book comes along which sets the standard by which you judge other books. For me, Egg and Spoon is one of those books. Even the ending is perfect and exactly what the book needed. If you want to read a good book this year, read Egg and Spoon.