The Other Side of Luck – by Ginger Johnson
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021
The title of this new middle-grade and older novel by Ginger Johnson is the first indication of its unusual focus. There are many books about pre-teens and teenagers struggling with the inherent unfairness of life and how to cope with it. There are other novels set in fantastic or semi-fictional historical worlds, not governed by the norms of realistic fiction. The Other Side of Luck falls into neither category, although its title might lead readers to believe that it is one more contemporary examination of young lives. Instead, we meet Una and Julien, a girl from the ruling class and a boy whose job is to help his father locate valuable plants and herbs for sale by potion makers in the local market. They do have family problems. Each has lost a mother. They both confront injustice. Yet Una and Julien’s life circumstances would seem to dictate very different outcomes. Subtlety, humor, and empathy give this novel, set in a fictional past world but full of identifiable problems, a rich and compelling dimension.
Una is the First Daughter of the Magister Populi (master, or teacher, of the people in Latin, which is not required for reading this book)! The privilege which defines her life does not extend to gender; her younger brother will inherit their father’s power. Julien, also motherless, has a tough job, helping his Baba (father) to locate valuable pharmaceuticals in the natural world. Since he has no sense of smell, this task is particularly challenging. There are lots of olfactory images and descriptions, some quite stunning, as when the author contrasts two different relationships of people to the environment:
…the marauders rode straight into a meadow of wildflowers…their horses’ hooves
trampling the delicate leaves and petals, crushing them, much the way an
apothecary grinds leaves and petals in a mortar with a pestle. The difference was
that the apothecary turns his destruction into something beautiful, whereas the
horsemen only left a path of wreckage.
Different themes weave together throughout the novel: feminism, parenting, coping with loss, finding one’s own path in life, fighting injustice. There is a marked absence of ideological statements, as the characters’ speech and internal monologues ring true to the way in which intelligent and insightful young adults might articulate their feelings. The colorful details of dress, language, food, and customs in this imaginary world are both specific and universal, allowing a great deal of room for the reader’s imagination. While character names such as Cassius, Brutus, and Ovid seem to be an homage to classic works of western literature, they enter the novel with a light touch, with multiple allusive possibilities. Even if the reader is completely unfamiliar with the sources, their compelling stories move forward.
There is also soup, in the hands of wise older woman named Vita (life), whose concoctions play an important role. “Soup of life has spice and lime, chiles, garlic, luck, and time.” You can’t argue with that recipe, only one of many essential ingredients in this beautiful and memorable book.