The life of a chimney sweep in Victorian London is a harsh one. Young children are "apprenticed" to master sweeps and climb through narrow, twisting chimneys on a daily basis, risking their lives for a place to stay and a few scraps to eat. They are abused and neglected and forced to work until they die or get too old to squeeze into the chimneys.
In "Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster" by Jonathan Auxier, Nan Sparrow is one such sweep. She has been indentured to cruel master Wilkie Crudd ever since she was abandoned by the man she calls The Sweep, her protector, mentor and father-figure. The only thing The Sweep left her was a piece of char that always stays warm. Nan wistfully shares nightly stories with the other sweeps as they gather around the char to stay warm.
Nan is one of the older sweeps and worries about when she will no longer be able to work the narrow chimneys of London. Finally the day comes when she gets stuck and must call for help. Of course, it is the jealous, cruel Roger, who comes to Nan's rescue. He gives her "the nudge" (lights a fire under her in the hearth) to astonishing results.
Nan wakes to find that she has not been burned alive, but has somehow survived. She also comes to the realization that her char has saved her. The char is actually a golem, created by The Sweep to protect Nan should she ever need it. It magically came alive to save her from a certain, fiery death. The char is now known as Charlie, and he and Nan live together in hiding while the world believes Nan to be dead. Charlie continues to learn and grow each day, but the world is a dark place not fit for innocents like Charlie.
Nan's supposed fiery death and the fall of another young sweep, set off a chain of events that leads to a raising of young voices — voices of the oppressed, overworked and overlooked children in the city of London. Nan realizes nothing can stay a secret forever, and eventually all good things must come to an end. The revelation Nan is still alive has devastating consequences for both her and Charlie.
"Sweep" is a moving tribute to friendship and sacrifice.
We truly do save ourselves by saving others.
Angie Bayne is the children's services manager at Missouri River Regional Library.