If you are looking for a book to give a young reader this holiday season that combines a ripping story, great characters and emotional heft, I recommend The Apothecary by Maile Meloy. A middle grade novel, it can be read by all ages for its fine drawing of history along with meditations on family, war, power, freedom and the threat of nuclear weapons. If this seems heavy freight for adolescents be assured that these deeper themes are carried along by adventure, budding romance and magic.
Janie Scott, the daughter of two successful Hollywood writers is wrenched from her comfortable life in 1952 Los Angeles when her parents take a job writing for BBC television. In brief scenes we know the ease and pleasures of Los Angeles, and are introduced to the paranoia and destructiveness of Joseph McCarthy’s State Department investigation into communism, the impetus for the family’s move. Arriving in London to a cold, cramped flat, Janie records her impressions of her new life in her diary and reacts with typical adolescent resentment to the changes she experiences. On her first day in London she meets the Apothecary of the title, who runs London’s version of a neighborhood pharmacy, supplies the family with hot water bottles and gives Janie a remedy for homesickness that seems to work.
In her new school Janie meets Benjamin Burrows, the Apothecary’s son, who has lost his mother to a German bomb during the Blitz and who refuses to “duck and cover” for a nuclear bomb drill. The two become friends. Benjamin would rather be a spy than dispense prescriptions like his father, and the two stumble upon Cold War espionage when they observe suspicious meetings in the park and discover that Benjamin’s father is not what he appears. No spy, he has alchemical powers and harbors secrets that place them all in danger. When he disappears, entrusting an ancient book of spells and transformative elixirs to Benjamin, the reader and Janie are swept up in a journey of mystery and suspense that could end in the world’s annihilation. With magical transformations, a pickpocket, murder, and the race to contain the power of nuclear bombs through physics and magic (and what is physics if not magic?), Janie, Benjamin and a host of well drawn and engaging characters are propelled through laboratories, capture and flight until they end up in the Arctic aboard an icebreaker with everything at stake. The resolution is surprising, suspenseful and tender, and left me hoping for a second book with these characters. I loved the magic and the very real relationship Meloy establishes.
Huzzah for the resurgence of illustrated books. The lovely drawings by Ian Schoenherr carry the story forward. A gorgeous book in the hand, compulsively readable and beautifully written. May I suggest that a local independent book store will allow you to page through and discover first hand the charms of this book? Indies rule.