Review: Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

Jonathan Auxier
Puffin, 2018

Nan Sparrow is tough: the strongest, nimblest, and luckiest of London’s climbers. She is also nursing private grief. She has lost the Sweep, the kind-hearted man who raised her from infancy, and she is locked in a bitter contest with a boy for the coveted apprenticeship with master chimney sweep Wilkie Crudd. When Nan appears to die in a chimney fire, she finds Charlie, who turns out to be a golem. She also meets Miss Bloom, a teacher at a girls’ school who befriends Nan and supports her new independence. But what will it cost Nan to leave the dangers of the street?

Sweep is a historical fantasy set in Victorian England. The novel is organized in part around William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and portrays the hard life of a chimney sweep, labour that for decades was performed by children tiny enough to fit inside chimneys. The presence of Charlie lends an element of magical realism and underscores the importance of friendship, loyalty, and nurturing in a nasty, brutish world.

Beyond its sprinkling of literary references (after Blake, Miss Bloom presses Nan to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and later Nan and Charlie read The Water-Babies together), the novel tackles big topics: poverty, religion, justice, and death. (The author’s Historical Note points readers to resources for further reading.) Through Nan’s eyes readers see how quickly one’s circumstances can turn upside down and how one may respond to both kindness and cruelty. Well-paced scenes and deft narration hold the telling back from becoming didactic, though. Ultimately, the novel stakes a claim for compassion, its key motif being “We are saved by saving others,” a potent sentiment in our culture that so often puts the self first.

Sweep is a long novel with robust vocabulary for its age group, but the compelling story is sure to be gobbled up by strong readers. The novel would also make an excellent selection for teachers to read aloud in class. It is tenderly written, punctuated by moments of comedy and terror, and its bittersweet ending will stay with readers for a long time. Impressive.

 

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

 

 

Review: Mistress Pat

Lucy Maud Montgomery
Tundra Books, 2018

Mistress Pat is Lucy Maud Montgomery’s second novel featuring Patricia Gardiner, the heroine of Pat of Silver Bush. In Mistress Pat, Pat is now eighteen and being pursued by young men who hope to marry her. But Pat is single-mindedly committed to her home and family. Over the eleven years of the novel, the world around Pat changes, and family members arrive and depart. In the end, Pat must resolve the central struggle of her life: her determination to remain at Silver Bush.

Mistress Pat would be a fine selection for readers who have worked their way through Montgomery’s Anne novels and through the Little House series. It is a gentle, slow-moving book, quite unlike much of what is currently available for middle-grade and YA readers. Although the book follows Pat through her late teens and twenties, many plot points will feel relatable for readers in their early teens (as well as for adult readers). Do be aware, however, that the novel contains passages that reflect attitudes of the early twentieth century; some readers may need to discuss the sexism and racism expressed in these passages.

For strong readers, this novel is noteworthy for Montgomery’s beautiful rendering of the landscape of Silver Bush and for her dropping of literary allusions. There is much to cherish in Montgomery’s effusive language and abundant descriptions, although her style will read as elevated and old-fashioned for some tastes. But for anyone who feels the strong tug of hearth and home — and grief for lost friends — Pat’s experiences will certainly resonate. Mistress Pat is an enjoyable, immersive book that readers will be able to revisit rewardingly, and I’m happy to see it available in this attractive new edition.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on May 27, 2018.

 

Review: The Fashion Committee

Susan Juby
Penguin Teen, 2018

 I enjoyed The Fashion Committee so much! It has angst and moments of social realism, but also moments of wry humour and a quirky premise. Charlie and John are high school students pitted against each other, and several of their classmates, to win a highly desirable scholarship to a school of art and design. Charlie is fashion crazy: it’s where she puts the vigilance and anxiety that living with an addict causes. John couldn’t care less about fashion but yearns to go to art school; but coming from a home with a fixed income, he simply can’t afford such dreams. For a while Charlie and John operate on parallel tracks, but we know they’re destined to collide.

Several reviews of this novel point out some improbable plot points, and while I recognize these concerns, I’m not convinced fiction has to operate as a perfect mirror of this world. Similarly, some readers are likely to notice that the “journal” structure of the novel doesn’t hold consistently, but it’s still narratively satisfying. I was pleased that Juby didn’t pair Charlie and John romantically — which would have been an easy choice — and I felt the resolution of the scholarship plot was fittingly balanced.

The Fashion Committee offers readers something like watching a John Hughes movie — but without the saccharine aftertaste or the 1980s attitudes. It’s a strong, smart novel by a novelist who understands her craft and her audience well.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on July 15, 2018.