Last month, we read One Crazy Summer, a work of historical fiction set in Oakland, California, 1968. Now we reach back in time with our July book, Karen Cushman's new middle grade novel Alchemy and Meggy Swann, to another summer. Here it's 1573 in Elizabethan London, a city described by the protagonist as "all soot and slime, noise and stink" (p. 2).
(Quick scheduling note for those of you planning your summer reading: This is the first in our series of six posts on Alchemy and Meggy Swann, which will culminate with an interview with Karen Cushman in early August. The StorySleuths will then spend the rest of August engaged in some summer reading of our own. We will return with a new book and fall schedule in September. To stay posted on our September read, please sign up for our newsletter .)
Cushman brings London to life in Alchemy and Meggy Swann, capturing both the specifics of the time period as well as the frenetic energy of an urban center in any time period:
... the streets were gloomy, with tall houses looming on either side, rank with the smell of fish and the sewage in the gutter, slippery with horse droppings, clamorous with church bells and the clatter of car wheels rumbling on cobbles. London was a gallimaufry of people and carts, horses and coaches, dogs and pigs, and such noise that made Meggy's head, accustomed to the gentle stillness of a country village, ache. (p. 4).How does Cushman create such a vivid impression of Elizabethan London?
The five senses
Cushman's narrative descriptions include sound, sight, smell, tastes, and touch. Here are just a few examples from Meggy's trip to find her friend Robert (p. 42):
Sound: "Shop signs swung and banged in the wind..."
Sight: "... the afternoon was wet, with mist rising off the river."
Smell: "The girl and goose stood in the fragrant steam rising from an inn."
Taste: "The crust [of a pork pie] crumbled deliciously against her teeth..."
Touch: "... meaty juices bespattered her chin."Contrast
Meggy's childhood growing up in the country contrasts sharply with life in the city.
She missed the scents of fresh ale and clean rushes and meat turning on the spit. This house stank of dust and mildew, and from somewhere, a foul reek like hen's eggs gone rotten. All in all it did not seem a place where people truly lived (p. 13).Cushman uses contrast to differentiate between Meggy's expectations and her present experiences.
Visiting a strange city is often exhausting: there is so much to observe at any given moment. Cushman creates the sensation of busy, crowded streets with lists rather than dense descriptions.
Every corner swarmed with people: peddlers and rat catchers, toy merchants and dung collectors, silken-cloaked ladies and children in ragged breeches, all going about their lives, laughing, shouting, arguing, jeering, and jostling. (p. 26)The list jumps from one person to the next, providing a wide scope of view in a concise format. The reader never feels bogged down in detailed description or superfluous information. Furthermore, the list also mimics the way an observer's gaze jumps from one thing to another.
Cushman's choice of words also helps to convey the time period and location in her descriptions. Here is another list, this one of food:
...apples and pears, carrots and cowcumbers, fat salmon, pigs' trotters, chunks of cheese, and ginger cakes. (p. 30).While I am unfamiliar with the term cowcumber, I assume it is an old-fashioned word for cucumber. The use of this word reminds me that the book takes place in another time and place.
The setting of Alchemy and Meggy Swann plays an important role in the book. Meggy has moved to London against her will, and she fears she will not survive in such a place. Cushman brings the chaos and vibrancy of the city to life throughout the book in a textured, almost impressionistic way through her use of senses, contrasts, lists, and language.
Tip #85: Lists, word choice, contrasts, and sense details work together to create a textured, lively impression of place.