It would be nice to think the Victorian-era practice of forcing small children down the throats of chimneys in order to scrub the area by hand was a historical anomaly and unthinkable now. But as Vancouver-born author Jonathan Auxier (The Night Gardener) suggests, in a historical note that accompanies his latest novel, Sweep, such a concept is far from obsolete. While researching the world of late 19th-century London for the book, he writes, “I very quickly realized I was looking into a mirror that reflected my own. Poverty, child labour . . . continue to this day, no matter how much we would prefer to ignore them.” That link between then and now is felt throughout this remarkable, surprising, and fast-paced story. Though it opens with the image of a sweep and his young climber (i.e., the child who does most of the actual cleaning work) walking past early-morning homes and singing merrily about their trade, it quickly shifts into a darker mode, exposing a life filled with danger, discomfort, hunger, poverty, and even violence.
The child is Nan Sparrow, a rare female climber, and the sweep is the man who raised her from infancy, but who dies while she is still young – likely from an ailment brought on by a lifetime of inhaling coal dust. He leaves her with one keepsake: a small piece of char that is perpetually warm and that she keeps with her at all times.
The book flashes forward a few years and Nan, now 11, is part of a team of climbers working for Crudd, a vicious and brutal sweep who is Dickensian in more than name only. Early in the book, Nan is brought to a school for girls in order to clean the chimneys. There, three things happen that alter her fate: she impresses one of the teachers, Miss Bloom, with her intelligence; she gets trapped in the chimney and is saved from a fiery death by that small piece of coal, which comes alive to rescue her; and her near-death allows her to escape from Crudd’s clutches and go freelance.
Taking refuge in an abandoned building, Nan befriends the char (who she names Charlie), and who uses soot to build himself into a giant man-like creature – a protective golem. She also befriends Miss Bloom, who teaches her about literature, history, and Jewish folklore, and makes efforts to have her adopted by one of London’s charitable friendship societies. Nan is also friends with Toby, a street-dwelling scavenger who teaches her how to survive on her own, and always seems to have access to needed items. As a child, Toby was rescued by Nan’s late adopted father from a gang of anti-Semitic thugs, so he feels devoted to her.
The theme of anti-Semitism is part of what lifts Sweep beyond a merely charming mash-up of Dickens and Brad Bird’s film The Iron Giant. Auxier is constantly showing readers the brute economic and cultural forces that shape Nan’s adventures with Charlie. In the book’s slightly over-the-top climax, Crudd serves as a suitably sneering baddie and receives a fairly brutal comeuppance. But throughout most of the novel, the true villain is Victorian society itself.
Sweep’s ambition and sophistication are impressive, and Auxier’s storytelling is never less than readable. But having all these themes – bigotry, child labour, golems, even the poetry of William Blake – at play within an otherwise straightforward tale of a precocious orphan finding her place in the world means that the story as a whole never quite clicks the way it should. It also means that we never get quite enough of the book’s strongest narrative thread: the delightfully rendered friendship between Nan and Charlie. As ungenerous as it sounds, I would’ve been fine with maybe a little less critique of unrestrained capitalism, if it meant more scenes of Nan and Charlie chatting about birds and such.