Award winning novelist Maile Meloy, in her first novel for young readers (10 and up), has written something amazing. The Apothecary is the story of fourteen-year-old Janie Scott who has unhappily moved with her television writing parents from a comfortable life in Hollywood, California, all the way to London. What makes Janie’s story remarkable is that through a touch of magic found in an ancient book, the Pharmacopoeia, the author, with some magic of her own, takes us into a scary but realistic depiction of the post WWII/Cold War year of 1952.
On its own, for young readers around the age of ten, it’s the wonderful and very exciting tale of Janie and her new friend Benjamin, the son of the apothecary whose shop is just down the street from the Scott’s dreary London apartment. It’s also a serious story of international skulduggery in which these two bright youngsters become both the hunters and the hunted. Careful pharmaceutical machinations (involving the rearrangement of the children’s atomic makeup) enable Janie and Benjamin to get in and out of more than a few tight situations.
For those readers a bit older and still studying American history, Meloy uses her fantasy tale to explore major world events at the time the Scott family moves abroad. How might the House UnAmerican Activities Committee look to a fourteen-year-old girl? And what about the arms race between America and the Soviet Union? How easily might two kids become unwittingly involved in the espionage encircling the above-ground testing of atomic bombs? Meloy’s story asks the question that is as important in in 2011 as it was in 1952: Is it possible to prevent the effects of radiation once a bomb has been detonated? Maybe. The Apothecary introduces us to some known atomic scientists involved in the testing, Sakharov for example, and some unknown apothecaries around the world who have been studying the ancient text of the Pharmacopoeia to seek such an answer.
Janie and Benjamin are bright, but very normal kids. They have no special powers in and of themselves. Benjamin’s rush toward an independence only wished for by most teens is first seen when he refuses to get under a lunch table in the school cafeteria during a Bomb Drill: “It’s ridiculous. We’d be incinerated in an atomic bomb blast. Instantly. We’d be ash by now.” His attention-getting defiance is duly noted by Janie, the new kid still without a uniform, who would do anything not to be noticed by her classmates. School romances have been built on less.
Janie’s relationship with her parents, with Benjamin and a few other young friends, and her steps toward maturity in an unstable world make The Apothecary a rich and rewarding read. I hope Social Studies and American History teachers in particular are given a heads-up when Maile Meloy’s book hits the libraries and bookstores this month. But no matter who you are, young or old, The Apothecary is an original telling of a not so distant past and the complex questions still worth asking today.