Sweep is set in Victorian London in the late 1800s, a period characterized by a gaping chasm between the haves and have-nots. Chimneys of the rich were cleaned by very small poor children – abandoned, sold, or kidnapped – who could fit up inside them. Adult managers of these exploited children were in many instances cruel and abusive, keeping the kids in appalling living conditions with inadequate food and caring nothing for them. As Auxier observed in an interview, sweeping by children was considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in history. He writes in an Author’s Note at the end of the book, “By some estimates, the average life span of a climber was just five years.”
Nan Sparrow is luckier, at least in the beginning. She lives with a man we only know as Sweep, who loves her and cares for her, sacrificing his own health and well-being for hers. As they work and travel through the city together, Sweep gives Nan lessons, teaching her to read; to free her imagination; to love; and to know what it was like to be loved. But when Nan was six, Sweep disappeared, leaving her alone with only an odd lump of char that was always warm. To survive, she signed a 7-year indentured labor contract with Wilkie Crudd, one of the cruelest of the sweep managers.
We rejoin Nan in 1875 when she is eleven and now the best of Crudd’s sweeps. She still has her char, and is also sustained by dreams of Sweep at night, when she is able to re-experience his love and caring. She is getting to the point when she will be too big to keep doing the job, however, and indeed, one day she gets stuck in a chimney. She almost burns alive, but is somehow saved by the char, which comes alive from the fire. She names it Charlie (“The best sort of name tells folks who you really are”), and Charlie begins to grow. While hiding out in the abandoned House With a Hundred Chimneys (a place where no sweep wants to go and a hat tip to Tolkien), Nan finds a book that mentions Golems, and she realizes this is what Charlie is.
In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated being magically created from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud). Stories told that a Golem could be brought to life by a rabbi with esoteric knowledge of alchemy, in order to protect Jews from persecution or death. [In fact, the author explained in his Note that when he was younger he went to Prague, the “birthplace” of the golem story in the 16th Century, and became fascinated with the idea. He was also intrigued by the fate of these heroic creatures, which you will learn more about when you read this book.]
Nan knows a golem shouldn’t exist, but “The Sweep had raised Nan to believe in impossible things. . . . . He had made her believe that a thousand wonders were waiting around every corner.”
In addition to Charlie, Nan has another friend in Toby Squall, a boy whose life the Sweep saved the year he left Nan. The Sweep not only rescued Toby from a physical assault, but gave him a purpose in life. “‘That’s how it works, doesn’t it? Toby says to Nan. ‘We are saved by saving others.’” That statement is one of the main themes of the book, and is played out repeatedly in the story. Nan considers Toby a pest at first, but Charlie likes him a great deal, and the three become comrades of sorts.
Life for Nan and Charlie, punctuated by occasional visits from Toby, falls into a routine, until disaster strikes one of the little climbers who works for Crudd. Nan, with the help of Esther Bloom – a kind teacher Nan met on a sweeping job – decides the time has come to take a stand for all of the abused children. But the managers who make money off them are willing to kill to make sure their business is not disrupted. The fates of Nan and the other sweeps, as well as of her Golem, hang in the balance.
Discussion: There are so many wonderful literary allusions in this book, both stated and implied. Of course Dickens will come to mind, as will Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (One of the themes is: who or what is really a monster – is it determined by your looks, or your character?)
Another theme is finding joy in a world full of pain – how can your outlook make a difference? The Sweep taught Nan his formula: kindness, wonder, mending, courage, and swaddling. Readers will have much to consider as they make the leap from the literal to the symbolic. A related emphasis is on the ability to see wonder in the quotidian – snow flakes! beds! pillows! a warm coat! playing!
Coming of age is a major motif as well, and in fact the author divides the book into two sections: Innocence, and Experience, reproducing William Blake’s two very different poems on the same subject to illustrate.
I was also reminded of Anna and The Swallow Man, which tells a similar story about a young girl and a man who sheltered and mentored her, teaching her to navigate through the slings and arrows of misfortune.
Evaluation: This spell-binding book is being marketed for middle grade readers, but in my opinion, it is appropriate for adults as well. It has different appeal to different levels of understanding, and its messages are ageless and timeless. Highly recommended!
Published by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, 2018