Most people know of the musical Wicked, a revisionist telling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz that empathises with the ‘bad’ witch, but not everyone knows that it is inspired by Gregory Maguire’s The Wicked Years series: Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men and Out of Oz. He’s written other books for adults, including short stories, and has a range of books for children and young adults. I particularly like What the Dickens: the Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy and his latest, Egg & Spoon.
In Egg & Spoon (Candlewick Press) Maguire has again featured a witch. This time it is the wacky Baba Yaga from Russian folklore whose forest hut runs around on chicken legs. (Incidentally, Anna and Barbara Fienberg also wrote about Baba Yaga for much younger children in Tashi and the Baba Yaga and the talented Geraldine McCaughrean wrote a picture book about Baba Yaga, Grandma Chickenlegs, illustrated by Moira Kemp.) Baba Yaga is the source of sly humour in Egg & Spoon and a gateway to the Russian tradition and culture that is interwoven into the story.
Two thirteen-year old girls of very different backgrounds, Elena is a peasant with a dying mother and conscripted brother and Ekaterina (Cat) is from a wealthy background who is lined up to possibly marry the Prince, meet when Cat’s train to St Petersburg breaks down. They circle each other, drawn by their similarities and differences, until Elena accidentally takes Cat’s place. The opportunity to try to petition the Tsar for her brother’s release is too great for Elena to miss and so she takes Cat’s identity.
The Faberge egg that Cat’s chaperone Great-Aunt Sophia has had made to impress the Tsar and his godson, the Prince, is a symbol of exotic Russian folklore. It is covered in designs with three openings cut into it like windows or scenes from a theatre. They show the magic flying Firebird, a phoenix; the albino ice-dragon, Zmey-Azdaja; and Baba Yaga and her house.
Baba Yaga is the source of most of the novel’s humour. When she disguises herself as Cat’s governess she says, ‘I am getting to like this martinet drag … It brings out my inner Mary Poppinskaya.’ And when the Prince tells her that he knows all about suffering from reading Dostoyevsky and Balzac, Baba Yaga retorts, ‘You want suffering. I’ll kick you in your Balzac.’