CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 41 . . . . June 22, 2018
Being an orphan in Victorian London was a difficult, thankless, and terrifyingly dangerous existence, especially for those who ended up as "climbing boys". These children—otherwise known as chimney sweeps—climbed through the treacherous, tight spaces in order to clean out the soot and keep homes safe from accidental chimney fires. Often, they would end up stuck, suffocating or burning to death, or they would fall from tall rooftops while their masters reaped the benefits of their labour. A young girl named Nan, apprentice to an incredibly nurturing sweep, and possibly the best climber in London, one day gets stuck in a chimney fire, but she is rescued by a mysterious creature made of soot and ash. She befriends the creature—which she later discovers is a golem—and learns to not only help and nurture him, but she also begins to better understand herself and the possibilities for a better future.
Nan's story is heartbreaking, awe-inspiring, and an educational glance back into a historical period when children without parents were considered to be expendable. Over the course of a year, she grows as a young woman, and she becomes the unwitting leader of a revolution to gain rights for her fellow climbers. Through it all, she has Charlie—her golem—who is described adorably and whose voice and mannerisms are so childlike. She begins by protecting him and working to ensure his safety in a world where monsters are only ever seen as evil, but, as their friendship blossoms, he begins to save her as well; he is a fiercely loyal friend right to the end!
In addition to Charlie, Nan has other friends and guides along the way, including Toby—a young boy who finds treasures in the Thames and sells them around town—and Miss Bloom, a Jewish teacher she meets one day just before the fateful chimney fire, and who eventually helps Nan to discover a love of reading and learning. The other chimney sweeps she begins the novel with are around during the rest of the narrative, and except for Roger, her nemesis in many ways, they boys respect her for her abilities and her caring nature.
Though there is darkness, death, and harrowing experiences throughout the tale, Auxier's mix of humour and in-depth world building will give readers a well-rounded experience, and one that never becomes too weighty or overly macabre. Auxier also includes an author's note explaining the process by which he came to write Sweep—what he calls "Story Soup"—and a historical note explaining the history and symbolism of golems, the lives of sweeps, and a bit of contextual information on Victorian London.
Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster is a fantastical and vibrant story encapsulating the horrific experiences of young sweeps along with a nuanced and sensitive exploration of friendship, loss, and fighting for those you love. Once again, Auxier proves his skill as a master storyteller in this tightly woven narrative for a new generation of young readers.
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies (SFU), and is also a graduate of the MA in Children's Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He loves reading a wide range of literature, but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.
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