Friday, December 28, 2007

Pardon the Sooty Fingerprints

Erudite Mondays (time has no meaning these days) at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 1, Number 2






On Christmas Eve, I received the books I won from McClelland & Stewart's Quest for the Ice Fox game. Everyone knows $100 doesn't get you very far in a bookstore, but I ended up with five titles:
  1. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson
  2. Search of the Moon King's Daughter by Linda Holeman
  3. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler
  4. Full Moon Rising by Joanne Taylor
  5. The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart

There was also, of course, a copy of The Frozen Thames, the book which the Ice Fox game was intended to promote.

I just finished Search of the Moon King's Daughter. It's a novel for young teens: a story about a family in England during the Industrial Revolution.

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear the words "Industrial Revolution" my scalp prickles. I remember my Grade 9 Social Studies teacher introducing us to the concept of "exploitation" - a word which became a standing joke among the [first world, privileged, ignorant, selfish] kids in that class. You know the kind of thing: "Mr. Buhler, Megan is exploiting me" or "I think this amount of homework qualifies as exploitation" or "I'm just gonna exploit you for a minute if you don't mind." It was only several years later, in university, studying the history of Britain and reading North and South, that I began to grasp the horrors of that time.

When I was browsing McClelland's catalogue and came across this volume, I was cautiously interested. I read as many reviews as I could find, and when I saw the words "entirely satisfactory ending", I decided to order it.

The story is set in a small textile city near Manchester. The protagonist is a young girl, Emmaline, employed as a seamstress in her wealthy aunt's house. Emmaline's mill-drudge mother is terribly injured in a work accident, and her subsequent addiction to laudanum motivates her to sell her five-year-old son as a climbing boy for a London chimney sweep. When Emmaline discovers what her mother has done, she sets off to London, by herself, to buy her brother back from his master.

When I first opened it, I wasn't sure whether I'd like the book. There is an awkwardness about the first several chapters, which are not chronological. They are somewhat heavy-handed: it's very clear that the author wants the reader to feel the tension and drama right from the start, before we even really care about the characters.

After the stumbling start, though, the book settles in fairly well. Emmaline's adventures in London are innocent enough...more innocent, I feel, than realism would allow. It's suitable to its audience, though. Emmaline does encounter the nastier aspects of life as a member of London's lower classes: the pregnancy of a housemaid by the son of the house, the starvation and....."exploitation" (Mr D. would be so proud of me) of the poor climbing boys, and the glittering despair of the disease-ridden, hollow-eyed prostitutes in St Giles' district. These and other mature themes (for instance the unaccountable dissimilarity in appearance between Emmaline and her "brother" Tommy, whom the Moon King's relatives icily refuse to countenance) make the book unsuitable for children under a certain age, although they are presented nicely glossed over: dimly lit.

There is one thing about this novel to which I strenuously object. The girl Emmaline is a far stronger, more graceful, morally-developed character than her history would believably produce. Her mother is an addictive, sluttish, alcoholic whose foolish, weak-willed, cuckolded shopkeeper poet of a husband is the titular "Moon King" to his children. After his death his now-poverty-stricken family, including the ill-fated infant Tommy, are turned out into the streets to end up penniless, shivering, and starving in the grimy squalor of mill-workers' lodgings. They live five miserable years there before the loom accident cripples the mother, and yet out of all this Emmaline emerges soft-spoken, erudite, strong-willed, decisive, tasteful, and sweetly deferential to her elders. Without getting into a nature/nurture debate, the whole business requires the partial - if not entire - suspension of the reader's disbelief. Not that there isn't a precedent for this kind of idealization among similarly themed fiction: Oliver Twist, star of the eponymous novel, is another little guy famous for holding onto his sweet angelic innocence in the worst of circumstances.

Reminding myself that I am not writing a term paper, here.

Despite its occasional shortcomings and taken in the spirit in which it's offered, Search of the Moon King's Daughter is, in the end, a satisfactory read. It would be a useful part of a teen's introduction to the depressing - yet exhilirating - industrialised world of Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, and Thomas "'done-because-we-are-too-menny'" Hardy.

12 comments:

karen said...

I always so enjoy words and the way, when someone manipulates them well, that they take on a richness like a full bodied red wine... words like eponymous and erudite. Sounds like a good read tho, even if some of the presentaions of the characters seem unbelieveable...Thomas Hardy was a master of the impossible truth in life!

Gwen said...

Smarty Pants.

Any One Else's Blogger Book Review:

I thought this was a pretty good book. I kind of liked the way it was set in the Industrial Revolution. The main character seemed kind of unrealistic because I don't think she would have turned out so nice from such a hard background. It kind of reminded me of this musical I saw called "Oliver Twist." But it was a good ending, and I liked that!

Penny said...

There is that genre of its time, where you have Oliver wist as the young lad of pure heart, unsullied by his uncouth surroundings. So it sounds like this book has picked up on that style of writing.

Kate said...

Gwen made me laugh :)

Dave Hingsburger said...

Shannon, now that's a book review. I write reviews of books I read and post them on amazon but I'm a wee bit closer to Gwen's style and I am to yours. I used to review books for journals but have given that up over the last few years. But what I wanted to say was that I didn't entirely agree with your sense that out of harsh circumstances comes harsh character (and the implied ... out of fine circumstances comes fine character). I have personally been witness, because of the work that I do, to some amazing people with incredible sensitivies who have come out of heinous (I'm trying to keep up with you) situations. I think we need to be careful in attributing morality and bearing to class rather than to character. One of the things I like about books like Twist (yes, I knew it was a book first) is that it demonstrates that the ability to rise above circumstance is always possible. By the by, Joe and I are addicted to British box sets and have the box set of North and South, an amazing series, or as you would have it, it's 2di4. If you've not seen it and would like to have it, email me your address and we'll ship it off to you. Dave

Shan said...

Dave, you're right: I didn't mean to suggest that good character or morality come from privileged backgrounds - more that I would expect a person raised with abuse, drug addiction, violence, fear and oppression to be more.....I don't know, wary than Emmaline was. Less trusting and innocent. But then again, you're the expert and I gladly defer to your better knowledge of the question.

And, NORTH AND SOUTH, ARE YOU FREAKING SERIOUS?!?!!? You are a benevolent and gracious man: a gentleman, and a scholar. Address forthcoming.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Shannon, I think you'll love the set. We hadn't heard of the book but when I was combing through Amazon looking for BBC box sets we found it. We're more than glad to ship it to you, and more than glad for you to keep it. We have too many sets, too little space. So send me your address and we'll get it right out to you. I think we may have some Thomas Hardy one's too but I'm not sure, I'll get Joe to look through them. Cool?

karen said...

Oh you lucky soul you!!! You win the grand prize at the wool counting AND you get to immerse yourself in something so wonderful...)North and South)- let me know when you might be inclined to view this - I could bring popcorn, or wine or whatever(!!!) if you are into having another member in the audience...
cheers!

Gwen said...

What? Don't I win anything? I thought "But it was a good ending, and I liked that!" had a certain flair to it, a je-ne-sais-quoi, if you will, a certain sort of something that elicited a warm chuckle and wise nod from my readers. I would have thought it merited a taped-from-TV copy of Blackadder or something. Jeez.

I always knew you liked Shannon more.

Jenny said...

I love Jane Urquhart. The Stone Carvers was an amazing book. Have you read Away?

Shan said...

Jenny: J.U. is one of my all-time favourite authors! I haven't read Stone Carvers yet but Away was very good. So far I think Changing Heaven was the best...or maybe Underpainter?
: )
Didn't care overmuch for Map of Glass but it will probably improve on second read.

Jenny said...

I have Changing Heaven and have never read it?! Which reminds me as I write this to go and read it ASAP.