It is 1952 and Janie Scott’s parents are blacklisted from their jobs as writers in Hollywood. They are lucky to find work in London, but Janie is resistant to leaving her warm California home. Moving to cold, rainy England in February and starting at a new school where she is expected to take Latin makes Janie extremely homesick. The one thing that helps her feel better is her budding friendship with the local apothecary’s son, Benjamin.
Janie is quickly drawn into a story of intrigue when Benjamin’s father is kidnapped by Soviet spies. The last thing they hear from Benjamin’s father is that they cannot trust the police, so the two teenagers set out to rescue him on their own. The apothecary has entrusted them with the Pharmocopoeia, an ancient book of medicines and magic, and with it and the help of some odd adult characters, they set out on their dangerous mission to rescue Benjamin’s father, and then the world, from nuclear devastation.
Though the book is a fantastical adventure story, author Maile Meloy—in her first work for young readers—weaves in the political intrigue that flavored the 1950s as well. Janie’s parents are suspected of being Communists, and while they neither confirm nor deny being so, they are clearly sympathetic to the ideal of Communism. The Soviets are not heroes, but neither are the Americans, as the Cold War builds and the arms race becomes the central focus of the world. The politics of the book may be lost on younger readers, but they will all grasp the potential destruction of nuclear weapons and the desire of the characters to thwart their development.
This well-paced fantasy is woven seamlessly with the reality of the times, making it all quite believable. We root for Janie and Benjamin as the suspense builds to a climactic ending that will excite readers old and young alike.
Jennifer Bruer Kitchel is the librarian for a pre-K through 8th grade Catholic school.