Today I have scheduled the posting of my review of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier. I looked forward to reading this book for several months after having it recommended by several people including Sarah Mackenzie of Read Aloud Revival.
Finally, I got it from the library when my local branch opened for curbside pickup in May! I have heard that Auxier is a master storyteller and my experience reading this novel certainly supported that idea. This book was really fascinating. I loved the setting and the storytelling was exceptional. It was very unexpected and clever.
- I think what first intrigued my about this book is the Victorian England setting. I love British literature and history so I was definitely excited to experience this story. There are so many great historical details! Great and haunting details about life as a chimney sweep (scary to have kids in chimneys, how to get them out, death on the job, dirty lives, treatment by masters, etc), loved the references to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.
- I love the House of 100 Chimneys– loved the way they named all the rooms and the way it became home. Favorite room would be the nothing room turned indoor garden.
According to Goodreads, “For nearly a century, Victorian London relied on “climbing boys”–orphans owned by chimney sweeps–to clean flues and protect homes from fire. The work was hard, thankless and brutally dangerous. Eleven-year-old Nan Sparrow is quite possibly the best climber who ever lived–and a girl. With her wits and will, she’s managed to beat the deadly odds time and time again.
But when Nan gets stuck in a deadly chimney fire, she fears her time has come. Instead, she wakes to find herself in an abandoned attic. And she is not alone. Huddled in the corner is a mysterious creature–a golem–made from ash and coal. This is the creature that saved her from the fire.
Sweep is the story of a girl and her monster. Together, these two outcasts carve out a life together–saving one another in the process.”
Nan and Charlie’s relationship is my favorite part of this novel. I loved the bond they share and the way they build a life together. The way that Charlie grows and develops his own opinions and actions was really interesting. I didn’t know much about golems before reading this book and I enjoyed the specific details about golems in this story. I loved when Nan would teach Charlie something like what is a monster, what is snow, or how to read. It was always explained so uniquely as only a child can explain it but beautifully. The climax of their relationship is powerful, tragic, and well developed. I appreciated the surprises along the way and the way their journey together feels complete at the end of the book.
Another favorite element in this book was the flashback stories to Nan’s life with the Sweep. I love stories that use flashbacks to show how different people came together or how someone learned a certain lesson. These are some of most interesting flashbacks I’ve read. They read like little dreams that you hope to have when you sleep. I loved the detail about life as a sweep and how joy and contentment can be found in the most difficult of circumstances. The Sweep created a beautiful early life for Nan despite their poverty and other challenges. Some of my favorite moments included the story soup, the magical doll eye, and their songs. I think these flashbacks are so effective because they maintain the mystery of the Sweep’s disappearance until the very end of the book.
The characters were well developed and each had a unique story to tell. Miss Bloom was probably my favorite character. She has an interesting backstory and I love her qualities as a teacher and a friend. I loved how she introduces Nan to books and how much she wants to help the sweeps. I also loved how loyal Toby was to Nan. He is a true friend. And I love how he gives Nan’s first experience eating ice cream! I also really loved little Newt for all he represents–childhood, innocence, tragedy. The way he trusts Nan and seeks to help her is really beautiful. Not only were these favorite characters well developed but the villains and characters of questionable loyalty are also intriguing. Wilkie Crudd is evil, abusive, and terrifying. Roger is unnerving and untrustworthy. All of these characters add to the story in different ways.
A few things surprised me in this novel and made it not quite five stars for me. The middle got a bit slow for me. It was hard to keep going for the second third or so of the book but the ending is fantastic. Speaking of, the ending is fascinating and so sad but satisfying. It is also very intense and violent so be aware of that if reading aloud or recommending this novel to younger readers. In fact, the book in general is more violent and dark than I anticipated. There is some discussion of child abuse, the intensity of the chimney sweeping job, Nan’s near death experience in a fire, the climactic ending, and extreme poverty. Definitely not for very young readers but certainly appropriate for upper middle grade readers and YA readers. With the right preparation, I think middle grade readers could have great discussions about this book.
Overall, a fascinating read that I am glad I experienced. The Victorian England setting is well developed and the characters are dynamic. I’d like to read more from Jonathan Auxier.
What are some of your favorite historical settings?
Who are your favorite storytellers for middle grade readers?