Egg & Spoon
Defying Gravity, or toppling over?
Gregory Maguire’s book pulls on myth and Russian folklore to tell a compelling and fantastic tale.
US author Gregory
Maguire has made a name for himself with his retellings of classic children’s stories and fairytales. His most famous work is Wicked, a version of The Wizard Of Oz told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch Of The West, which was made into a wildly popular Broadway musical. Egg & Spoon sees Maguire this time turn his attention to Russian folklore, but the results are mixed, in part because the novel can never seem to quite decide which audience it’s aimed at.
It’s the eve of the Russian revolution. Repeated poor harvests – caused by a cycle of weather that could be considered inhospitable even by Russian standards – have left an already desperately poor population facing the spectre of starvation. In a tiny backwater hamlet, a girl named Elena nurses her ailing mother and ekes out an existence on scavenged nuts and berries. Her father is dead, and at the start of the novel her elder brothers are both press- ganged into service far away: one in the army, one in a landowner’s household.
Then a train en route for St Petersburg, carrying a unique gift for the Tsar and a potential bride for his godson in the shape of a girl named Cat, is stranded on the edge of the village by a damaged bridge. Elena’s horizons broaden rapidly, not least because when the train finally departs, an unlikely mix- up leaves her on the train in Cat’s place. Soon both girls are having encounters with mythical beings – Elena stumbles upon the Firebird, Cat falls in with the witch Baba Yaga – and the fate of the land lies in their inexperienced hands.
The set- up has a fairytale quality to it: Elena’s situation has echoes of Cinderella skivvying for her stepsisters, just a fairy godmother and a glass slipper – or, in this case, a train and a magic egg – away from swapping a draughty cottage for a lavish palace.
But her plight ( and that of her community) is so sharply and painstakingly drawn that it’s rather
A dichotomy between grit and glee runs through the entire novel
elephant tap- dancing on the roof of a car. Jokes in untranslated French rub shoulders with gags which carve deep grooves into the ground with their repetition; Baba Yaga’s love of all things anachronistic and American is initially fun – she has Cheerios in her cupboard and Cats on her turntable – but wears thin.
The overall effect can sometimes resemble whiplash: crippling poverty! Wisecracking cat! Terrible oppression! Ice dragon! Maguire’s attempt to create family fun often comes unstuck. Individual elements work, sometimes very well – the characters are well- rounded, the descriptions colourful, the dialogue lively, and the issues thoughtful – but, set alongside each other, they tend to clash more often than they compliment. Even if they’re not always successful, though, these juxtapositions make the book spikier and more interesting than it first appears. Nic Clarke
at odds with the cheerful tone of the narration and the freewheeling slapstick of the plot that develops. This dichotomy between grit and glee is the thread that runs through the heart of the novel.
On the one hand, Egg & Spoon is a book that’s keen to celebrate a child’s way of seeing the world. Much is made of the fact that only children are able to spot Baba Yaga’s house running around on its chicken legs, its story largely revolves around the trials and tribulations of two girls just entering their teens, and the solution to most problems involves being true to your friends and believing in magic.
On the other hand, it also ( understandably, given the setting) wants to show us certain things kids don’t generally notice, like systemic abuses of power and the ways in which Cat’s class privilege is an obstacle to a real friendship with Elena. At which point Maguire remembers he’s also writing for children and switches back to the first hand, spelling out his moral messages with all the subtlety of an