Janie Scott begins by telling her readers about her idyllic California existence in the early 1950s, following WWII. Her parents are funny and articulate, oranges picked in her won yard drip juice down her chin when eaten, and the ocean regularly calls to her to bask in its waves. Then one day she is followed home and McCarthyism changes all things for her family. Her parents have been subpoenaed to court and they make the decision to leave the US and head to London where a job awaits.
They are wildly enthusiastic about the move, and try to convince their unhappy daughter that all will be well. When Janie sees the grim reality the war has wrought in England, and begins to learn about the deprivation that exists there, she is stunned. They use ration cards for shopping, food is scarce and chocolate is non-existent. Add to that attendance at a brand school where uniforms are required dress and the hierarchy is already established, and Janie is even more apprehensive.
At school she meets Benjamin Burrows who refuses to duck and cover when the school practices a bomb drill. She is suitably intrigued, and attracted. In conversation she learns that he is an aspiring spy with no interest in following in his father's footsteps:
"Benjamin slumped back in his seat. "It's not nineteenth-century, it's just English," he said. "There's an expectation."
"That you become what your father is?"
"In some cases. In my case, The Society for Apothecaries pays my school fees, and I wouldn't be in St. Beden's without them. I'd be at some grim secondary modern..."
It is when Janie and Benjamin go to the apothecary shop that things come unravelled. Mr. Burrows is frantic to protect his son, and the Pharmacopoeia (a book filled with recipes for medicines and old ways of healing hurts) from the sinister, evil men who burst into his shop. He hides Benjamin and Janie, and when they come out of their undiscovered hiding place, the apothecary is gone.
Thus begins a harrowing journey that puts them in touch with corruption, spies, arrest, a small group of scientists from around the world who are trying to stop a planned Russian atomic test, and Pip. They meet him while they are being held in jail, and he is a welcome addition to their band of good guys. Using the Pharmacopoeia and its contents, they work to foil the testing. Meeting the other scientists helps them to understand the impact and danger of the cold war.
The author knows her audience, despite this being her first book for that age group. She creates great characters, gives them a often times grim setting, leaves them alone without parental supervision, and then adds credible elements of fantasy to allow them access to the places they need to be. Pip provides a gentle dose of humor and chutzpah to ensure a bit of breathing space and a chance to laugh when things get really tense. The action does not happen without its share of setbacks, which adds to the tension and enjoyment:
"So we weren't, as you see, very good at being sneaky. We had interrogated our own ally in a bugged house, and turned into birds in front of the entire population of Turnbull Hall, and now we'd hustled the St. Beden's chess club in the space of five minutes."
Ancient arts, the postwar fight for power and control, adolescent attraction, loving families, an amazing narrator who tells her story with clear-voiced panache, and a very surprising ending. What more can we ask to enthrall and delight a middle grade audience?
It is an amazing read!