By the time I got to page 15, I had a problem. I knew I was so hopelessly in love with this book that I couldn’t bear to read any more, because then it would be over, but I also couldn’t bear to stop reading, because I wanted to be immersed in this magical world created by Ursu! Needless to say, I felt compelled to continue on….
This is the story of an eleven-year-old boy, Oscar, who has been told he is nothing his whole life, and now he believes it. He works as a helper to a magician in a world in which a plague has taken many lives, except for those of the people of Aletheia who have been protected by magic. Oscar’s employer, Master Caleb, has a shop in which he sells all sorts of herbal concoctions and remedies to meet the needs of townspeople looking for love and luck and wards against evil, and occasionally even healing of actual maladies. Caleb also has an apprentice, called Wolf, who is a cruel bully to Oscar when Caleb isn’t looking. In a wonderful passage that gives you a flavor of Ursu’s writing with its warmth, humor and charm, she explains:
“The apprentice’s name was Wolf, because sometimes the universe is an unsutble place.”
Oscar clarifies that one of the reasons he loves to go into the woods so much on his herb-collecting trips is because “…the forest … felt as secure and familiar as Oscar’s own pantry. Better, because there were only wolves, and no Wolf.”
Oscar also explains that the magic of the place comes from its soil, with the plants and shrubs and flowers and mushrooms that, in combination, bring out each other’s strengths and work together to become healing salves or soothing teas or at least, palliatives that do no harm. Because, as Wolf sneeringly points out to Oscar, if people want to believe something works like magic, it will. This is precisely the reason the man who bakes bread for the village doesn’t use it: “My boy,” he says to Oscar, “you cannot look to magic to solve your problems.” (In one very funny passage, a gentleman tells Oscar he is looking for a necklace “that would cause any lady who received them as a gift to forgive the sins of the person who gave them to her.” Oscar opines, “You could try apologizing.” The story continues: “The gentleman peered at Oscar, then shook his head. ‘I’ll try the perfumer.’”)
Oscar is having these encounters with customers because Caleb has left on business, and Wolf is gone too. There is no one else to run the shop. With the aid of Callie, the young helper of the local healer who is also gone, the two of them end up dealing with all of the town’s growing problems on their own, and maybe even transforming the world in the process. And in the end, Oscar finds out what the feeling of magic really is.
Evaluation: This utterly captivating middle grade (and up) novel manages to immerse you immediately inside Oscar’s magical world without excessive world-building details. Much of what makes the world different only becomes clear as part of an investigation by Oscar and Callie as they race against the clock to help the sick children of the town. There is plenty of suspense and heartbreak and hope and love in the mix of healing and magic that comprise this ultimately uplifting and beautiful story. Yes, it is designed so that middle graders can understand it, but the author kept me guessing: “Oh!”, I would think: “it’s actually a retelling of THIS!” And then, “No! it’s about THAT!” I never really knew until Oscar and Callie knew! Highly recommended!
Note: The book includes lovely illustrations by Erin McGuire.
Note: This book was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature.
Published by Waldon Pond Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013