Linda Holeman's respect for her readers shines through her writing. Her latest novel, Search of the Moon King's Daughter, is a welcome addition to the outstanding list of books she has written for young people, including Promise Song and Raspberry House Blues.
Holeman has returned to the genre of historical fiction in this novel, setting it in industrial England in the mid 1800s. This is Leon Garfield territory, the land of Smith and Fair's Fair, those much neglected and under appreciated great works of children's fiction.
The story takes place between 1830 and 1836. Emmaline, the central character, struggles to keep her family going after her father dies of cholera and her mother is disabled in a factory accident. Her younger brother, Tommy, suffers a brain fever as a baby which leaves him deaf. Against what seem like insurmountable odds, Emmaline goes to work for her aunt as a seamstress. She manages to support the family until her mother becomes dependent on laudanum and, unknown to Emmaline, sells Tommy to a man who will exploit his small size by using him as a chimney sweep in London. The second half of the book takes place in London, where Emmaline, now 16, goes to try to find Tommy. Once there she finds work at Thorn House as a laundry scrubber and on her days off she searches the streets for her brother.
This novel is rich in historical detail: the poverty and desperation of families who can't afford to keep their children, the charities who try to help, the lack of schooling for the poor, the dreadful conditions of the factories, even the killer fog in London. Happy times such as a May Day parade and the budding romance between Emmaline and Thomas, another employee at Thorn House, balance the story's elements of hope and despair.
At times in her novels, Holeman overloads the narrative with issues. In this book, we have poverty, child abuse, drug addiction, exploitation, sexual harassment, to name a few. In historical fiction such themes can add to the reader's knowledge of the period and here for the most part they enrich rather than obscure the flow of the story. Still I would have preferred for Holeman to leave some things out. Why, for example, does she have the mother in the story strike her sick baby? It has been well established that this mother is unfit so why add such a detail? However, this is a small quibble and on the whole Holeman has created diverse characters who are appealing and complex. Emmaline seems capable of anything and her courage and love for her little brother allow her to overcome the most trying obstacles until she is able to redeem him.
Many teen readers are turning away from the disfunction and gloom of contemporary young adult novels. They will find The Search for the Moon King's Daughter immensely satisfying and engaging. While in her home province of Manitoba, she has received recognition for her fiction, winning the McNally Robinson Book for Young People Award in 2001 for Raspberry House Blues, and though all of her young adult fiction has been shortlisted for this award, she's not well known across Canada. Ironically, all of her previous books have been selected for the 'Books for The Teen Age' by the New York Public Library. Surely she will soon find similar acclaim in Canada.
Julie Glazier is a Toronto writer, reviewer and lover of fine fictions for children and young adults.