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Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

Review

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

When Nan Sparrow sings for work, her sweet voice makes people glance in her direction: “With brush and pail and soot and song! A sweep brings luck all season long!”

Unlike her cheery song, however, life for Nan and other child chimney climbers in Victorian London is bleak in SWEEP: The Story of A Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier. They work for cruel and bullish master sweeps who treat them poorly. They’re barely fed, their clothes are in tatters and their feet are always bare, no matter the weather. Nan is under the control of Wilkie Crudd, who bills himself as the “Clean Sweep” in part due to his impeccable suit, making him a favorite for couples who want the luck of having a chimney sweep at their weddings. His young charges, the climbers who are mostly under the age of 12, sleep in a coal bin.

"Rarely has a book touched upon so many themes and issues of significant concern….There is plenty of heartbreak to go around, but there are also moments of levity….Auxier’s novel is one you won’t want to miss."

 

Nan is one of Crudd’s best climbers and is competition with another climber named Roger to become Crudd’s apprentice. But Nan didn’t always belong to Crudd. She used to have the Sweep, who was her protector and champion. He took her along on jobs and would find food for her and warm places for them to sleep. Sometimes, they didn’t have food and he would make story soup, finding objects and weaving a tale for Nan to enjoy as she fell asleep.

Then suddenly the Sweep disappeared and Nan was left alone. She made her way to Crudd, but she never forgets the Sweep and holds on to the char he left her, a piece of coal that’s warm in the center and brings her comfort. She dreams of him constantly and the children who sleep next to Nan end up dreaming of him, too.

One day, Nan is cleaning the chimneys in a school for girls and becomes stuck. Roger comes to light a fire under her (literally) to get her moving and she begins to burn alive --- except she doesn’t somehow. She comes to in a crawl space in the school, her char beside her. It turns out the piece of coal left to her by the Sweep is more than a comfort. He’s a golem the Sweep left behind to protect her and he came alive the moment Nan needed him the most.

This starts a new life for Nan and Charlie (a lengthened version of “char”). For the first time since the Sweep, she has someone to depend on. Nan is presumed dead by the authorities, but knows Crudd is on the lookout for her. She and Charlie take refuge in an abandoned mansion with multiple chimneys that the sweeps consider bad luck. She never stops thinking about the plight of the other climbers, or Miss Bloom, the teacher she met at the girls’ school when she was cleaning the chimneys. There’s also Toby, a Jewish boy who sells items from his “emporium” and looks after Nan despite her attempts to dissuade him from doing so.

But Nan is constantly looking over her shoulder, knowing Crudd is still looking for her to fulfill her contract and angry that he had to pay a fine for her death. She is concerned with keeping herself and Charlie safe from prying eyes, as well as continuing to work as a climber so that she can buy food. Miss Bloom, discovering Nan’s curiosity and intelligence, slowly begins to teach her. And Nan learns all she can about Charlie and what exactly a golem’s purpose is.

Because it turns out, Charlie might not be there to stay and the very thought breaks Nan’s heart. She doesn’t realize --- can’t realize --- yet that there are others who care for her just as much as her long ago Sweep.

Rarely has a book touched upon so many themes and issues of significant concern. The cruelty of child labor is witnessed through the climbers, particularly Newt, a young boy who Nan fears for. There’s the anti-Semitism Toby and Miss Bloom face, as well as the teacher’s grappling with her heritage. Socioeconomic differences and extreme class structures shown with the contrast between Miss Bloom’s students and the climbers. Mythology is introduced through Charlie, and poetry through William Blake’s sobering poems about child sweeps.

The book is divided into two parts, innocence and experience, with both having an equal emotional pull. There’s a phrase that Toby introduces when talking to Nan about why he keeps coming around even though she’s told him to go away, “We save ourselves by saving others.” And in truth, this is what Auxier’s novel is all about. The characters just aren’t always aware of who is saving who, creating a perfect circle that settles completely at the novel’s conclusion.

There is plenty of heartbreak to go around, but there are also moments of levity expressed through Charlie as he learns about humans and the wider world. Witnessing Nan’s heart slowly open to others and paying the love and devotion the Sweep showed her forward comes across subtly. Because the truth is, we can’t go at it alone, whether we are educated teachers, childhood chimney climbers, junk collectors or mythical golems. Auxier’s novel is one you won’t want to miss.

Reviewed by Liz Sauchelli on September 27, 2018

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