Source of book: Audiobook from the library
I had never heard of Gregory Maguire before selecting this book, which I did based on its presence in a few lists of good modern books for children. (Written in 2014.) However, as no doubt any number of readers could have informed me, Maguire is best known for Wicked, the book the musical was based on. Probably, such knowledge would have made zero difference in whether I chose the book, as I am not much of a celebrity chaser.
The book itself, however. How shall I describe it? Perhaps as a mashup of The Prince and the Pauper with Russian folklore such as the Firebird and Baba Yaga, the witch with the house on chicken legs? As a modern parable of the hardships imposed on the poorest by natural disasters? (In this case, the reference is obviously to climate change, and regardless of one’s opinion on that, Maguire is absolutely right that while the rich will probably be fine in any case, the poor always suffer most from any disaster.) As a reflection on privilege and selfishness? An excuse to embed literary and philosophical Easter Eggs for the adults? Or perhaps just as a highly imaginative fantasy adventure that you can’t stop reading because it sucks you in so thoroughly? Egg and Spoon is all these and more.
Over the last couple of years, the kids and I have listened to some outstanding audiobooks. Perhaps I should call out Terry Pratchett as a favorite author, but with commendation to Neil Gaiman, Richard Peck, Grace Lin, and Kate DiCamillo for particularly deep thought and strong themes.
This book too had a wonderful depth, and multiple layers to appeal to a wide range of listeners. My eight-year-old younger son was effusive about it after just a couple of chapters, before it even got into the exciting parts. The writing is outstanding in my opinion. The vocabulary is good, and Maguire knows enough of his literature to make some really good jokes involving writers from Shakespeare to Pushkin, to say nothing of the philosophical wordplay.
The basic plot is this: Elena is a poor peasant girl, whose father was killed - along with the other girls her age - in a tragic flood. Her mother is dying, and all the healthy males from the village have been conscripted by the Tsar. When her brothers too are taken, one for military service, the other for domestic service, she is left alone. Then, a chartered train - the first in years - makes a stop in the village while a bridge ahead is repaired, and Elena meets Ekaterina, a wealthy girl on her way to a soiree wherein a bride - perhaps her - will be picked for the Tsar's grandson.
An accident results in Elena and Ekaterina being switched; Elena finds herself in luxury, headed for St. Petersburg, while Kat flees the hostile villagers and is lured to Baba Yaga’s hut.
It appears she may be eaten as is the usual fate of such children, but she throws a wrench in the work when she gives Baba Yaga the gift which was intended to the Tsar: a custom made Faberge Egg. (If you want to know more about these eggs, which each contain a “surprise,” Wikipedia has a description and a list.)
This illustration was in a review of the book, but I couldn't find out whether it was an illustration from the book or not.
Either way, it is a good one...
This particular (fictional) egg has three windows which reveal three scenes, which will become important to the story as it unfolds. The first is a picture of Baba Yaga and her hut. The second is of the Firebird. The third is of an ice dragon. The specifics of this egg appear to be based on the “Caucasus” egg, which had four painted scenes as its “surprise.” Maguire combines this with some other eggs containing miniature sculptures - the scenes in this egg are done as dioramas within the egg.
Baba Yaga is taken aback by this gift, which appears to thwart her gustatory intentions. She then has to make common cause with Kat, as she too wants to go see the Tsar. In her case, she wishes to inquire why Russia seems to be losing its magic.
On the way to St. Petersburg, Elena has an encounter with the Firebird, and tries to steal a feather. (For those who know the legend, if one can do that, one gets a wish.) Instead, a hen steals the feather, and the Firebird self-immolates, to be reborn. Except that, for some reason, it goes wrong, and the egg never hatches. Thus, Elena too has an egg - a Firebird egg.
Upon arrival at St. Petersburg, it is evident that things are going wrong all over. The winter has ended before its time, and everything is flooded. Why is this happening, and what can be done to set things to rights? Eventually, it falls to Elena, Kat, Baba Yaga, and the Tsar's godson to investigate and try to restore Russia - and the world - to equilibrium.
Maguire does a good job with the characters. Baba Yaga is perhaps the central character, and I would guess was the author’s favorite. She is thoroughly zany, to say the least, being perhaps the evil twin of The Sword and the Stone’s Merlin. She has time traveled, and keeps name dropping famous characters of the past - and future. But in really quirky and amusing ways. She is wicked in so many ways, or at least tries so hard to be, but she ends up bonding with the girls in spite of her best efforts. She is both comic relief and one of the wiser characters.
Other characters which stood out were the wise and philosophical “doctor,” Peter Petrovich, who is thrust into his role because he is the only person available. Trained as a veterinarian, he must serve a human clientele because no one else can. His wry observations, gentle compassion, and absurdly optimistic way of looking at life are enjoyable. Kat also has three companions, each interesting in their own way. Her nearsighted and corpulent aunt, Madame Sophia, is complex, being both ludicrous and yet a beacon of morality and compassion in a society of selfishness. The French butler and the English governess are both stock characters and yet fresh twists on their types. Anton starts out as a vapid and spoiled boy, but chooses to pursue adventure and a quest rather than marinate in his wealth.
And that’s before we even get to the giant matryoshka dolls come to life, and the dragon-tooth soldiers (a la Jason and the Argonauts of Greek mythology). Legends old and new, and from around the world find themselves woven into the story in unexpected ways.
In the end, though, the story has a serious theme which becomes apparent in glimpses before coming together in the end. What ultimately brings evil to the world is selfishness and greed. It is the refrain of “I want” that disturbs the Ice Dragon. The cure, as Kat and Elena realize, is to spend less effort on “I want” and more on generosity, compassion, and helping one another. It’s also a reminder that “love your neighbor” requires both individual generosity and a change to the structures which impoverish many to feed the luxury of a few. Kat and Madame Sophia may choose to be individually generous - which is good - but change must come to the institutions that grant the powerful the ability to impoverish the weak. As history (see for example American slavery…) has shown, both are important, and the individual tends to lead to the universal.
A couple of notes. First, Maguire does use an interesting framing device, having Brother Uri, an imprisoned monk tell the story. He eventually appears in the story, about two-thirds of the way through. For the adult reader, this raises the question of whether he is a reliable narrator or not. Second, the audiobook is narrated by Michael Page, a veteran reader. You can find his name all over as an audiobook narrator, and with good reason. He did an outstanding job on this one, with all the voices distinct, and the sound levels compatible with travel.
Anyway, we really loved this book, and recommend it.
A book like this requires music. The obvious place to start is with Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. The ballet was followed by different suites drawn from the music. The best known is the 1919 suite, which is the one I have performed. (We are playing it again this fall.)
The Royal Ballet’s version of the full work is worth looking up as well.
The legend of the Ice Dragon dates back to Norse Mythology, but has been recently popularized by Game of Thrones, apparently. (I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole yet, but google results for “ice dragon” leads to more GoT hits than you can fathom.) Lacking enough knowledge to find a clip from that, I will go with Howard Shore’s score to the second Hobbit movie. Too bad the movies weren’t as good as the score.
And, finally, the third of the legends found in the egg: Baba Yaga. Pictures at an Exhibition is one of my favorite orchestral works. Mussorgsky's work for piano, as re-imagined for orchestra by Maurice Ravel is delightful throughout. The legend of Baba Yaga gets a treatment in “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs.”