Tales of the golem — a mythical being made from inert matter and brought to life to protect Jews from persecution — have been told throughout Jewish history. In Sweep: the Story of a Girl and Her Monster, Jonathan Auxier has given new depth and dimensions to this inexhaustible legend. Set in Victorian London, Sweep tells the story of Nan Sparrow — one of thousands of children virtually enslaved as chimney sweeps — and her golem. Weaving together history and fantasy, the novel is both an exciting adventure and a poetic outcry against oppression and cruelty.
Nan’s golem, given to her by her childhood protector, the Sweep, initially appears to be a small piece of soot. However, he shows signs of possessing uncanny power when he rescues Nan from burning in a chimney. On the run from her former boss and a vengeful coworker, Nan and her “clod of char” take refuge in an abandoned mansion. As time passes, the golem becomes more and more lifelike, and acquires a name: Charlie. He also continues to use his mysterious strength to save Nan and others who are helpless to save themselves. In vivid detail, Auxier evokes the callous greed of industrializing England — a society in which child labor was normalized and calls for reform went largely ignored. Sweep is both specific in its setting and universal in its consideration of what makes people both selfish and noble, and how social and economic circumstances can destroy or elevate.
Literacy is central to the novel’s message. Nan’s Sweep has taught her to read, and she in turn teaches Charlie. Esther Bloom, a teacher at a nearby school, also becomes a mentor to Nan; she reads both English and Hebrew, and dedicates her life to educating those deprived of words. Auxier’s use of poetry to propel the plot and affect his characters’ psychological development is remarkable. Nan is enraged by the cheery depiction of a sweep’s life in William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper,” which she finds in a volume of Songs of Innocence given to her by Miss Bloom. Later, however, Nan reads the more harrowing version of the poem in Blake’s Songs of Experience, and is transformed. Young readers confront the full text of “The Chimney Sweeper” along with Nan, and Auxier takes some risk in assuming that they will identify with her journey through literature.
Nan becomes a complex and subtle character who compels readers’ empathy as she learns that “we are saved by saving others.” Her progress from victimhood to independence is realistically imperfect and full of loss. Neither she nor the golem can save everyone. Ultimately, she must learn that her compassionate monster is not immortal and she will need to survive on her own. Her evolving friendship with Toby Squall, a young Jewish refugee who lives by his wits in London’s underworld economy, underscores her new maturity. Toby and Miss Bloom are fully realized characters, not mere symbols of irrational prejudice against Jews.
Auxier includes a moving author’s note in which he describes how he came to write Sweep and to identify with the vulnerability of his characters through challenges in his own life. Another section offers historical background about nineteenth-century London, antisemitism, and different versions of the golemmyth. Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster is highly recommended for readers ages ten and up.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.