I borrowed this from the library, but Sweep is one I will eventually own. I very much enjoy Auxier’s books. If you enjoy Landy, Gaiman, Hardinge, Priestley, or Dickens…you’ll enjoy Auxier.
Sweep : The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier
Abrams, 2018. Hardcover, 368 pages.
Historical Fantasy. Ages 8-12.
Nan has lived among rooftops and chimneys since birth, raised by the Sweep, and eventually left by him when she was only six. In order to survive, she entered indentured service to “The Clean Sweep” aka Crudd, a cruel master who would see to her demise in one fashion or another. Even if it were not Victorian England, climbing flues is dangerous work, and any number of things could harm, maim, or kill a climber. Then there is the problem of shelter, starvation, and Roger.
Auxier infuses his historical fiction with the fantastic. We first encounter the Sweep, the dreaming, and her singing, but soon there is the monster, a golem. Auxier’s golem is the most marvelous creation. Really, Auxier creates many marvelous characters, even the villainous ones. Nan, Charlie, and Toby are particular favorites, and the Sweep, of course, ugh, I love the Sweep.
Sweep will break your heart in multiple ways, and you’ll feel grateful. You’ll also laugh, I hope—certainly smile. Sweep is humorous and charming.
“Who is Mary Christmas?”
Charlie asked this one morning during breakfast. He had heard people calling this woman’s name on the street all week and had become quite worried. “I hope they find her.”
Nan was eating cabbage stew—her favorite breakfast—from a cracked teacup. “Not Mary Christmas,” she said through slurpy mouthfuls. “Merry Christmas. ‘Merry’ means happy. It’s what folks say to each other when the baby Jesus is born every year—that’s Christmas.”
“Every year? I thought born only happens once?” This was all too confusing for Charlie.
So Nan told Charlie about the whole thing. How the baby Jesus was born in a basket and how a wicked king tried to kidnap him but then a big bearded angel named Father Christmas fought the king. “And then he tossed the baby Jesus down the chimney of a girl named Mary, and that was the first Christmas present.” Nan had never set foot in a church, so you can forgive her for not knowing better. “Now, every year in winter, Father Christmas spends one night bringing presents down the chimneys of all the good boys and girls in the world.”
“Is that true or a story?”
“It’s in the Bible,” Nan said, wiping stew from her chin.
Truthfully, Nan had her doubts. If there were a fat giant hopping down chimneys once a year, she would probably have spotted him…or at least heard him stomping on the roof. Chimneys were her business, after all. (166-7)
Sweep is also deadly serious. “We save ourselves by saving others,” is not a quaint idea to letter in cursive on a blank wall or t-shirt. The gift of life is negotiated in the harshest of circumstances, as is the loss of it. Neither Sweep or Nan can afford to romanticize any of it; nor does such a romantic lens suit them.
Nan is gloriously practical, and playful; loving and inventive. She’s eleven going on twelve and all the changes physically and societally. Nan doesn’t want to “bloom.” She is already made vulnerable as an orphan child slave surviving by climbing, but soon she will no longer be able to earn a living that way and her prospects seem grim. Vulnerable doesn’t seem to be a choice, but for lives to become better, something beyond survival, Nan has to choose to become more vulnerable (e.g. Charlie, Christmas, Toby, Newt, etc); where vulnerable isn’t a default or situation, but a choice or desirable way to live. And this is where change happens, and her life takes on growth and life, begins to “bloom” in another way. I appreciate how we see this in Sweep, Toby, and Esther’s stories.
The narrative arc Auxier lays for Nan is fascinating, in part because of the structure he upon which he lays the book: “Part One: Innocence” and “Part Two: Experience.” I don’t want to spoil anything mentioning Auxier’s use of William Blake, but damn, that was smart. I didn’t see that second poem coming even though I knew it existed. I appreciate Nan’s rage and the conversation it produces. We can and do construct narratives that make one group comfortable, [willfully] ignorant of the harm that that narrative causes/perpetuates for another group. Auxier’s books tend to make my feminist heart happy, but he talks activism and protest in Sweep as well. Victorian England had ‘friendly societies,’ constraints, and questions of responsibility that will feel relevant to our own time, and in this story, courageous children incite change.
“Is It a magic chessman?” The girl ran her thumb over the cracked base. It did not seem very magical. “Will the brave knight fight the charity men in my dreams?”
“It’s not magic. It’s a reminder.” The Sweep mussed her hair. “The brave knight is YOU. And YOU can fight them for yourself.” (296)
In Sweep, Nan’s dreams and voice have a magical quality, and the message resonates. Dreams and voices, resourcefulness, courage and determination…young people have these things, both inside the book and out. Given that spark of purpose/meaning, what can’t/won’t they do? Whose lives may be saved in the process.
Recommended for those who enjoy friendship stories, historical fiction, and/or adventure; those who enjoy grit, horror and/or the macabre. For those interested in fem-friendly reads and/or Jewish characters. For readers of Derek Landy, Neil Gaiman, Frances Hardinge, or Christopher Priestly. If they are a sensitive reader, read this one aloud with them, you’ll both enjoy it.
If you have not read any of Auxier’s earlier books, do. You’ll appreciate the little shout-out to them in Sweep.