Fic­tion

Sweep: The Sto­ry of a Girl and Her Monster

By – January 7, 2019

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

This ener­getic adven­ture is built on Jew­ish leg­end and Vic­to­ri­an England’s social hor­rors. Char­ac­ters who are con­stant­ly on the run are shield­ed and saved at the last sec­ond by a rein­car­nat­ed golem. Although his ori­gins are his dif­fer­ent than in most leg­ends, the monster’s essence stays true to tra­di­tion; instead of the hulk in the Prague attic, Aux­i­er presents us with an ever-grow­ing lump of soot in a Lon­don attic. Soot is also vital to the sup­port of oppressed child chim­ney sweeps, who are major char­ac­ters in the nov­el. Despite her pover­ty, Nan, the belea­guered pro­tag­o­nist, whose cru­el exis­tence beats that of any Dick­ens cre­ation, is live­ly, smart, thought­ful, full of pep, and eager to try and dare. As the straight­for­ward may­hem pro­ceeds, the under­ly­ing mys­tery of the girl’s ori­gin sur­faces in frag­ment­ed clues relayed in mov­ing, poet­ic pas­sages. The local sweeps form a gang to help Nan defeat the vil­lain­ous sweep boss­es; these boys do not under­stand that the golem is all Nan needs. The chil­dren are also helped by a Jew­ish school teacher seek­ing to renew her con­nec­tion to her reli­gious roots. The golem, who can­not ulti­mate­ly save him­self, saves the chil­dren — their sense of won­der and their friend­ship for each other.