CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 1 . . . . September 6, 2002
Holeman's fourth YA novel and her second work of historical fiction is absolutely outstanding. Middle and senior school readers are transported to England during the years 1830-1836, a time when a person's social standing at birth largely determined what her/his future life circumstances would likely be. Told in four parts, this longer than normal adolescent novel commences in February,1836, with a "Prologue" which reveals that Catherine "Cat" Roke, the mother of Emmaline, the book's 15-year-old central character, has just been horribly injured in a cotton mill accident. The novel then flashes back to1830-31 and what were initially happier times when Emmaline, then 10, lived with her father, Jasper, her mother and her recently born brother, Tommy, in Maidenfern, a small village in Lancashire County, where Jasper operated a shop for its owner. While Jasper loves his simple way of life ("Working a village shop is the best way to live.... My dream would be to someday own my shop outright." pp. 17-18), his sister, Phoebe Slater, who had married a prosperous cotton mill owner, believes that Jasper could have achieved much more with his life. In particular, Phoebe strongly disapproves of Jasper's attractive wife whom Phoebe views as an illiterate country woman of questionable morals. At one point, Jasper, an avid gardener, weaves a crown of moonflowers which he places on his head, an act which causes the young Emmaline to declare, "You are the Moon King," and Jasper to reply, "And you, the Moon King's daughter." When cholera sweeps through the village, Jasper is one of its victims. Informed she must vacate the shop within two months, the widowed Cat avoids making decisions by turning even more to drink. Adding to Cat's problems, just weeks after Jasper's death, Tommy suffers a brain fever, and, during a drunken stupor, Cat strikes him. Either as a result of the illness or the blow, Tommy is left deaf. However, the realization of what she may have done does cause Cat to become sober and finally to take some steps towards the family's future. Reluctantly, Cat seeks help from her hated sister-in-law, Phoebe. Emmaline, who had been taught to read and write by Jasper, writes to her aunt who does agree to give Cat a job in her husband's mill plus a place to live in the factory worker's cottages. However, the catch in the childless Phoebe's seeming generosity is that Emmaline must agree to live with her as her daughter. The novel's third part, which is set in Tibbing, near Manchester, spans the years 1831-1836 and fills in the events up to Cat's injury and those which immediately followed. Though Emmaline is tempted by the life of leisure and luxury which her aunt can provide for her, she elects to remain with her mother and brother in the squalid factory "cottages." For the next five years, Cat works 14 hours a day, six days a week, in the mill, Emmaline toils as an assistant seamstress in her aunt's home, and, by age four, little Tommy is doing piecework gluing match boxes together. Following Cat's injury, Cat becomes addicted to an opium based painkiller. Unable to work and with the family's savings gone, an addicted, desperate Cat first pawns the family's meager possessions before doing the unthinkable - she "sells" Tommy to a London master chimney sweep in order to get money for her "medicine." Emmaline, who was more of a mother to her deaf, mute brother than Cat, recognizes that the lives of climbing boys were harsh and short, and so she determines to retrieve Tommy. However, in order to do so, Emmaline requires the support of Aunt Phoebe to see to Cat's needs in her absence, with the cost of that support being Emmaline's agreement that she will become Phoebe's "daughter" and sever her ties with Tommy and Cat. The book's final and largest section occurs in 1836 in London where, for a couple of months, Emmaline becomes a servant in the Thorn household in order to support herself while she searches for Tommy. A new storyline also develops as Emmaline finds herself unavoidably embroiled in the affairs of Eugene, the wastrel son of the house's master, and two members of the house's "below stairs" staff, the pregnant Sukey and Thomas, Sukey's unofficial younger brother. In the book's believable conclusion, everything ends well for all of the characters (with, perhaps, the exception of Aunt Phoebe who still does not have a child) as Tommy is recovered and Emmaline inherits sufficient funds to achieve the dream she shared with her father, that of owning a country shop, one she can now share with Tommy, Cat, Sukey and Thomas.
While the strong storyline and vivid characterizations are sufficiently compelling to provide this book with a "Highly Recommended" rating, it is the period detail that Holeman seamlessly weaves into her plot that truly sets this book apart. Today's adolescent readers (and their parents) will be amazed and shocked by the appalling conditions under which workers of the nineteenth century had to toil and live. As well, Holeman's revelations concerning the enormous class distinctions that were drawn during the book's historical period will likely be an awakening to many readers. Rich in sensory appeal, Holeman's choice of language will speak to all of her readers' senses.
One of this year's absolute "must" purchases for all libraries serving adolescents.
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children's and adolescent literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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