Thursday, March 07, 2019

Saved by Saving Others: Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Nan looked toward the patched bag Toby carried everywhere. She could picture it draped over the Sweep's shoulder.

Nan nodded. "The Sweep's like that."

She sighed. "Why didn't he take me with him?"

"He was dying, Nan," said Toby. "He didn't want you to find him... like that. And so he left you. You and Charlie. Only something went wrong, and Charlie wasn't born right away."

"I held on to him too tight," said Nan.

"No harm in the end," said Toby. "All it took was being burned alive in a chimney to fix your mistake."

Nan was left all alone on the streets of London, with only a lump of char that kept her warm at night, and she was soon taken by Wilkie Crudd, a cruel chimney sweep whose ragged orphan crew act as his "climbers" in narrow chimneys too small for anyone but a starved child. But when eleven-year-old Nan tries to spare the skin-and-bones little Newt from a nine-inch chimney, she gets herself stuck and when all else fails, her boss uses the final remedy, the "Devil's Nudge," setting the chimney afire with her inside.

"The first rule," said Crudd. "Don't let them talk you out of it. They may have to break a few bones to get out, but...." His words were swallowed up in the roaring of the flames.

Her body felt as it it was burning. The char in her pocket caught fire and burned like a brand. "Help!" she gasped.

Nan comes back to consciousness alone in a cold attic, a pile of rubble from the hole in the collapsed chimney beside her. How had she escaped? She felt around for something to warm her and found her lump of char, but this time it moved and tried to roll away. It was alive.

It stared back. Its warmth radiated through her whole body. She did not question whether the Sweep had meant for this to happen.

"Hello, little thing," she whispered. "I've waited so long to meet you."

Nan is soon taken under the wing of Miss Bloom, the headmistress of the school in whose chimney she nearly died. Miss Bloom tries to keep her safe, feeds and teaches her, and from her Nan learns what Charlie is. He is a golem, given by the Sweep to protect her, and as he grows huge, the two find a home in a abandoned house, The House of One Hundred Chimneys, where Nan takes in escaped sweeps and is drawn into Miss Bloom's cause--the welfare of homeless children who are virtually enslaved as sweeps and mudlarkers, sewer scavengers and thieves. She and Charlie, grown into a hulking black "monster," costumed as the folk hero, the Green Man, join in the May Day Parade of the Sweepers, an action which led to the Sweepers Act of 1875, the first act giving rights to child laborers in London. But Nan is recognized by her old boss and pursued to the top of the Golden Tower, and the crowd below gasps as she falls.

Jonathan Auxier's Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Amulet/Abrams Books, 2018), drops the reader right into the Dickensian world of nineteenth-century London, the time of Frankenstein's monster, Sherlock Holmes, Oliver Twist and Ebenezer Scrooge, a place of great disparity, with the fabulously rich and the desperately poor, an age of advancing literature, science and industry based on a lower class beset with disease and hunger. All is brought together in the characters of Crudd and Miss Bloom, Nan and the redeeming love of the Sweep and her loyal servant, her Charlie. Although the wider setting is grim, Auxier's fantasy has the comforting warmth of a cozy fireplace and the basic goodness and loyalty of his characters who will survive and flourish. "We save ourselves by saving others," says Nan.

Says Booklist, "Auxier wipes away the grime from a bleak chapter in history. He questions what makes one a monster and applauds helping others, activism, education, earthly marvels, and the possibility of magic. Nan’s fiery personality will attract readers like moths, and Auxier's unusual blend of mythology and history will keep them transfixed."

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