Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pulse Pounding Pursuit of Peace

How very fortunate for middle grade readers that Maile Meloy made the decision to pen a book for them, The Apothecary.   Already having made a name for herself in the realm of adult fiction, novels and short stories, Meloy clearly has a grasp on how to spin a tale no matter the age for which it is written.  Her adept attention to detail causes readers to feel that rather than a book in hand they are watching through a crystal ball a story beyond their wildest expectations.

In the beginning Meloy employs the technique of having one of the characters, Jane, in 2011, now an older woman of 73 write a note to the reader.  She explains that she kept a diary when she was fourteen in 1952; a diary, taken and then given back, whose entries though written by her own hand are as if they never happened.  She goes on to say:

People describe their childhoods as magical, but mine---it really was.

Between her seventh and fourteenth birthdays life was good for Janie Scott living in Los Angeles, California as all in her world seemed to be enjoying a life without the restrictions that fighting in a world war brings.  By the close of the first chapter that bliss has been replaced by the Korean War, the ever growing threat of nuclear warfare and Janie's realization that her supposed feeling of being followed is true.  U. S. marshals want to take her parents to court; the House Committee on Un-American Activities is in full swing.  Due to their abilities as radio and television writers they have been asked to work on a program about Robin Hood...in London.

Picture leaving the only home you have known with only what you can carry, your friends, and the warm sunny weather of California only to arrive in London, a city still bearing the wounds of war, living in a tiny, cold, damp flat and being the new girl at a school where uniforms are mandatory and Latin is a required class.  What Janie can not know is that Benjamin Burrows, a boy she initially finds attractive despite or maybe because of his defiance to school authority, will ensnare her in an adventure that will last a lifetime.

Benjamin Barrows does not want to follow in his father's footsteps as an apothecary; spying in the service of his country seems to be the more attractive path to follow.  Benjamin finds Janie interesting; the two strike up a friendship, make a date for chess in Hyde Park.  What Benjamin can not know is that he and Janie will uncover a secret about his father and other foreign scientists that will make his desires come true more quickly than he could ever imagine.

Before Benjamin and Janie can conceive of what is happening his father has thrust into his hands a book that has been in his family for seven hundred years, The Pharmacopoeia, and hidden them away in the cellar of his shop.  When they emerge he has vanished perhaps taken by German speaking men who have vandalized the store. 

An elderly gardener found murdered in a medicinal wonder, The Physic Garden, herbal potions for truth, flight and invisibility that uncover lies, double agents, escape from evil and treacherous power-hungry individuals as well as the Scotland Yard and a harrowing boat ride to a remote island in the Arctic Ocean blend in a blazing blast of pure adrenaline rush.

Every character is fully realized from Janie's parents, to Benjamin's father, to Pip (yes, Pip) a street-wise ally, the classic rich girl at school, Sarah, the evil scar-faced German terrorist, the extraordinary Chinese woman chemist Jin Lo, the treasonous Latin teacher, Mr. Danby, a Hungarian physicist, Count Vilmos who can freeze time and a boat full of hardy Norwegian sailors dedicated to helping save the world.

Not only is the writing of Maile Meloy descriptively detailed but it is brimming with realistic heart.

Pip stepped off his footstool and offered it to the apothecary, who climbed down from the counter.  He wiped ooze off his pale chest, and it plopped to the floor.  Benjamin threw his arms around his father, and the apothecary looked surprised, then wrapped his arms around Benjamin, too.  I remembered their argument in the shop, and how little Benjamin had wanted to be an apothecary, and I wondered if it had been a long time since they hugged like this.  Benjamin was as tall as his father, but rested his head on his shoulder with his eyes closed, like a kid.  I had a pang, thinking of my own parents, who were out in the country knowing nothing about where I was.

Before our eyes her use of words transforms our world just as magically as the potions do Janie, Benjamin and Pip.

I felt a strange, rushing feeling in my veins, and understood why Benjamin and Pip had looked so surprised.  I'd never been aware of each individual blood vessel in my body like that, and of the blood coursing through them.  Then I felt my heartbeat speed up, and my bones seemed to lighten.

He held out his arm, and I saw him do it, because there was a dusting of orange on his invisible skin.  I could see his head, to, as if cast in orange mist.  The smoke was clinging to us, and we were becoming visible, as orange ghosts.

What sends this story, The Apothecary, toward the top of my list of good reads in 2011 is the artwork by Ian Schoenherr.  Done in ink and acrylic paint they frame, highlight and compliment as the best of illustrations do.  Their subtle foreshadowing heightens flow, tension and realism in the story; especially when the new chapter illustrations extend back a page to the end of the previous chapter.  At times the choice to use black as a predominant color with white text is bold but brilliantly atmospheric.  Varied layouts, size and what has been chosen as a focus bespeaks of the mind of a master.

I extend my heartfelt thanks to Ian Schoenherr for sending me the two visuals to place in my post.  He excellently captures the horror of this moment in the story.  The first is his initial attempt.  The second is the final version appearing in the book.  Follow this link to his blog for an interesting explanation of how this illustration came into being.  It is the post dated November 20, 2011.

Maile Meloy has given us a classic, timeless read to remember with the consummate mix of history, fantasy and new romance that is a heart-pounding page turner of the first order.  I know that a host of readers, male and female, young and old, will, and probably already do, agree that this should only be the beginning of Benjamin and Janie.  I will allow for the possibilities.  I out-and-out love everything about this book.

Follow this link to a Discussion Guide for The Apothecary.


  1. Love this review! I'm trying to write mine at the moment, and I'm trying to put into words how I feel about this book but it's hard!

  2. Thank you, Jess. Yes, it is hard. I'm no expert but what usually works for me is to put myself in booktalk mode. Sometimes when I am looking at the writing or illustrative style I try to highlight what stands out for me; what drew me to the book or why I will reread it. And sometimes I pretend I am talking or writing to the author or illustrator.