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:
- The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson
- Search of the Moon King's Daughter by Linda Holeman
- The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler
- Full Moon Rising by Joanne Taylor
- 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.
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.