Novels that blend history with imaginative fantasy are particularly hard to pull off and particularly special when they’re written just right. Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep definitely falls into the latter category, as this accomplished storyteller combines Victorian labor history and Jewish mythology for an unforgettable tale of a friendship that transcends time and place.
Nan Sparrow is the best chimney sweep London has seen in a generation. She learned from the best, having been tutored by her kindly guardian known only as the Sweep. But the Sweep has been gone for years, and Nan is now in thrall to a cruel master with little regard for his young charge’s well-being. Although Nan is smart and creative, she can’t imagine a different future until she finds herself cleaning the chimneys at a girls’ school and a teacher recognizes her potential.
But then Nan becomes trapped in the school’s narrow chimney, risking being burned alive on the job. That moment of crisis, however, brings to life the Sweep’s last gift to Nan, a kindly soot golem named Charlie who transforms her life.
Auxier’s melding of fiction and fact—much of which is explained in an author’s note—will inspire readers to learn more about the sources behind this tale. But what will ring truest for readers of all ages is the novel’s emotional core: “We save ourselves by saving others.” This message of generosity and compassion changes Nan’s life and will touch young readers, too.
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.