Egg and Spoon
by Gregory Maguire
In a desperately impoverished village, Elena Rudina struggles to feed her sick mother. Her father is dead; her brothers driven away by poverty and the demands of the Tsar. With no food and allies trapped in the same pathetic position, Elena has little to hope for. Then a train breaks down in town, and Elena catches the attention of Ekaterina – “Cat” for short – a wealthy girl being brought by her great aunt to the Tsar’s grand ball. After a sudden accident, the two girls find their roles reversed. Elena impersonates Cat and settles into a life of luxury while the former princess struggles through the rough life of a Russian peasant child. Events are thrown into further chaos when Cat stumbles across the lair of Baba Yaga and they discover that one of Russia’s great magical beings, the Firebird, has gone missing. This disaster threatens to unravel Russia and unseat the Tsar if they cannot locate and restore the missing bird, setting in motion a great quest that will either save Russia or destroy the world.
Combining The Prince and the Pauper with traditional Russian folklore, Gregory Maguire crafts a modernist fairy tale immersed in the weight and beauty of Russia tradition. This world is one where a house can walk on chicken feet, an enormous dragon sleeps trapped in ice, and matryoshka dolls come to life to dance with toy soldiers. The trademark lyricism and precision of word choice that characterizes his writing is in full force, and it suits the fairy tale atmosphere very, very well. The only nod to modernity is the wise-cracking Baba Yaga, who exists out of sync with time and constantly slips anachronistic slang into her speech. She’s a bit weird and unhinged, but would you want her any other way? Of course not.
The story is narrated by a monk, imprisoned by the Tsar for a crime left unrevealed until near the end of the novel. He makes little side comments and observations to the reader, comparing the lives of Elena and Cat to traditional Russian folklore and his own life experiences. It doesn’t add much flavor or character to the narrative. No, the monk’s asides merely slow the pacing in key scenes in a manner distracting rather than dramatic.
Still, it’s a decent adventure story. I enjoyed it far more than Maguire’s famous Wicked series. The two girls are very realistic, created with the prejudices and attitudes appropriate to their class and then forced to grow beyond their normal boundaries. Baba Yaga is always entertaining, and her magical world melds so seamlessly in the wild Russian woods with the “real” world that you do end up believing, if only for a few minutes, in ice dragons and firebirds.
– Review by Suzi