The Chimney Sweep and the Elevator Trade
Though they’re different in many ways, I’m pairing STYX MALONE and SWEEP in this post because I had a similar experience as I read them: I started out thinking I knew what each book was going to be like and was prepared to probably dismiss them as “good, but not great;” then got quickly hooked and realized in both cases that there’s a lot more to each of them than I thought there would be. You’d think I’d know better by now….
THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE is fun, funny, and generally lighthearted on the surface, but it contains insights and subtleties that are powerful and expertly drawn. Caleb’s sees exciting new possibilities and a chance to be “more than ordinary” when Styx enters his world. Caleb is one of the most interestingly drawn characters of the year for me. He’s curious and observant, and the way he uses Styx, or at least his image of Styx, to push himself into the kind of person he thinks he wants to be, is fascinating.
Maybe we just plain wanted everything he offered. Adventure. Excitement. The biggest trouble we’ve ever gotten into in our lives, we got into with Styx Malone. (1)
His mom declares that Styx is “a handful of trouble…the first time she laid eyes on him” (73), and readers get that too. Caleb ignores this and doesn’t care, at least at first. There’s clearly more to Styx’s story than Caleb knows at the outset, but he gradually catches on. I like the way the mystery of Styx’s past builds steadily, but without overshadowing the character development that’s really the heart of the novel. The truth about Styx isn’t nearly as interesting as the way Caleb’s understanding about him changes as it’s revealed.
And while the Caleb/Styx interplay seems to be center stage, the relationship between Caleb and Bobby Gene is equally important. In his rush to emulate Styx, Caleb’s almost dismissive of his less reckless older brother, but by the end he sees him very differently:
Bobby Gene met my gaze. Then he reached right across that ocean and took my hand. I wondered if it was hard for him, saying the right thing at the right time to Dad. Sticking up for me, when so much of what we’d done with Styx had pushed him to the limits, and beyond.
I was wrong about my brother. He wasn’t on the ordinary side of the canyon with Dad.
He was the bridge. (280)
The plot thread where Styx and the brothers try to complete “the Great Escalator Trade” for a moped is engaging enough, but for me this book excels in the areas of “delineation of characters” and “interpretation of the theme or concept.”
Jonathan Auxier’s SWEEP has received five nominations on Heavy Medal, and it has many strengths. As historical fiction, it presents a vivid picture of 19th century London. Readers get a feel for the city and also the people who populate it, especially the poorer ones. The book is also a fantasy, with a single magical element: the golem that Nan Sparrow receives as a parting gift from the Sweep. And it’s kind of a mystery, as Nan tries to find out what happened to the Sweep. Nan herself is a very engaging character, and the plot that’s built around her is multi-layered, but never confusing. Her adventures as a sweep, her wish for a better life, and the challenge of figuring out how to live with Charlie all move forward neatly and with plenty of surprises.
Underlying it all are multiple themes that are deftly explored through the unique story: the treatment of child workers; the nature of monsters; the importance of courage and decency. There are definitely some harsh realities in Nan’s world, and her view of that world and the people in it is often pretty grim, but I appreciated the way there’s also a positive spirit running through the novel. Like when Toby the mudlark explains the holiday Hogmanay to Nan:
“You know what they say about Hogmanay?” Toby said. “Whatever you’re doing at the stroke of midnight is what you’ll be doing all through the new year.”
Nan considered this. Sitting on a rooftop. Charlie on one side. Toby on the other. A clear sky above. The whole world below. She hugged her knees against her chest. “I could do worse.” (181)
I’m considering both of these for the two slots left in the December nomination, but that’s true of about a half-dozen other books too…this won’t be easy.