Not Just for Kids: ‘The Apothecary’ by Maile Meloy
G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 353 pp., $16.99, ages 10 and older
A quick Amazon search for books on World War II yields an astonishing 45,961 titles. There are far fewer stories about its Cold War aftermath, and even fewer that attempt to channel the early ‘50s from a teenager’s point of view — but Maile Meloy’s “The Apothecary” does just that. A gem of historical fiction for the middle-school set, Meloy’s children’s debut is a pitch-perfect melding of postwar intrigue and ancient medicinal arts told from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl.
Janie Scott is the only daughter of screenwriter parents who, suspected of communist activity in 1952, were blacklisted in L.A. and flee to London — a move Janie describes as “leaving a Technicolor movie and walking into a black-and-white one.” The transition from sock-hopping Hollywood High to the uniformed strictures of St. Beden’s is, to be sure, abrupt. But it isn’t long before Janie befriends Benjamin and is drawn into the strange and mysterious world of alchemy.
Benjamin’s father is an apothecary, carrying on a family tradition that dates to the Middle Ages. Benjamin, however, wants nothing to do with his dad’s profession. He’s far more interested in espionage, which he practices in the park while playing chess with Janie, keeping tabs on a peg-legged Russian he suspects is passing secrets to real spies.
Traipsing around London with Janie, Benjamin learns that spies are inextricably linked with the family business, and the two are soon caught up in a life-or-death mission that involves the keeping of a 700-year-old book of secret spells and tinctures called the Pharmacopoeia. If only such a book actually existed. It’s hard to imagine a middle schooler who hasn’t, at some point, wished for invisibility or to fly like a bird or to force adversaries to speak the truth. The recipes for such universally desired effects not only exist in the Pharmacopoeia, but they’re also regularly put to use in “The Apothecary,” as Janie and Benjamin evade a member of the East German Stasi called the Scar and befriend a Dickensian lock picker named Pip.
The international cast in “The Apothecary” and the role each one plays in the plot serve as a subtle introduction to the World War II conflict and its aftermath for readers who may not have learned much about it yet in school. Not only is there a Russian spy and a member of the German secret police, there is an English double agent, a Chinese chemist and, of course, our plucky and adventurous American girl protagonist.
Meloy keeps the pace quick and tensions high, but she never loses sight of her target audience. Her writing has an appreciation for whimsy and a comedic touch that lighten the mood in a story that could otherwise seem quite frightening, raising the specter, as it does, of nuclear warfare.
Part of what makes “The Apothecary” such a delight to read are the historical details, such as the duck-and-cover-style bomb drills English students regularly practiced in school and the Morrison shelter — the large metal cages Londoners kept in their homes to crawl into and protect themselves from falling debris during air raids. Meloy said the details were inspired by various sources, including the book “Austerity Britain, 1946-1951,” a collection of first-person accounts about living in England after the war, as well as visits to a centuries-old medicinal plant garden in London.
Meloy didn’t come up with the idea for “The Apothecary.” She was approached by friends who’d dreamed up a movie about a young American girl whose family moved to London and was swept into the mysteries of an apothecary. They thought a novel should be written first. Meloy hadn’t written for children previously. She is best known as an award-winning short-story writer — and as the sister of Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy, who also made his debut this year as an author for the middle grades with “The Wildwood Chronicles.”
Talent clearly runs in the family.
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