Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Jun 27, 2020

Have you ever read a book and, upon finishing it, thought, Where is all the praise for this book? Why has no one been talking about it? Why has it not won any awards?

That's how I felt after reading this book. It was so beautifully written, well-researched, and brilliantly crafted that it seemed like it must have somehow been tragically overlooked the year it was published.

I personally took notice of it, not because anyone else had mentioned it, but simply because it was written by Jonathan Auxier, and I have been a major fan of his ever since reading Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes several years ago.

But even with this selling point, it still took me over a year to pick up a copy because the title didn't interest me. I didn't think I had much use for a book about monsters.

Little did I know that the "monster" was only one to those who didn't know him. To Nan, he was a golem, birthed from a little piece of glowing char she'd had in her possession for a long time.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Nan is a climber in 1875 London. She works for Mr. Wilkie Crudd, better known as "The Clean Sweep." Her job is to clean people's chimneys, not by pushing a broom up into them à la Mary Poppins, but by pushing herself up into them. Because of her small frame, she can go where no adult can--small shafts that are literally no bigger than a 9-inch square (I feel a little ill just writing that out).

Nan hasn't always worked for Wilkie Crudd. When she was very young, she moved around London with her Sweep. He was tall and thin and quietly protective. He told stories and invented possibilities and made even bad things seem exciting. Under his hand, she learned to read and think for herself. But one day he disappeared, leaving behind only his hat and a warm piece of char.

Nan keeps thinking her Sweep will come back, but in the meantime, her only option is to climb chimneys and collect soot.

But then one day, the unthinkable happens. While Nan is crawling through a tiny tunnel in a school for young ladies, she gets distracted by a conversation going on in one of the rooms below. She doesn't pay attention to her position, and she gets stuck. When a climber gets stuck, there are only a few options, and none of them are pleasant.

The one that Nan's rival, Roger, decides to try is called the Devil's Nudge, and it involves lighting a fire in the hearth under her. The idea is that with the right motivation, Nan will do anything, including breaking her own bones, to free herself.

But something happens when Nan is stuck inside that flue--something that Nan can't explain or even figure out for herself. The little piece of char she has carried in her pocket for years ignites and blasts her out of the chimney, and when she regains consciousness, she realizes that everyone thinks she's dead, and her char has turned into a little baby golem she affectionately names Charlie.

Together, they hide away and make an unusual, but very pleasant, life for themselves. No one but Nan's friend, Toby, knows about Charlie, and that's probably for the best since it only takes a few weeks before Charlie is no longer the size of a pebble but a big and lumbering (but just so naively adorable) golem.

But of course things don't stay happy and comfortable. Nan finds out that Wilkie Crudd doesn't believe for an instant that she died in that fire ("Nan Sparrow, felled by the Devil's Nudge? Maybe another climber, but not [her]"). And as she attempts to hide from and outsmart him, she learns more about golems. Miss Bloom, a teacher from the young ladies' seminary, tells Nan that golems are created for a purpose and that "once a golem has fulfilled its purpose, it must die."

This story was the perfect mix of history, fantasy, and emotion. If one of those elements had been removed, it wouldn't have worked, but blended together, they were a magic combination.

I learned so much about the tragic life that was the reality of so many children during the Industrial Revolution.  At the back of the book, Jonathan Auxier shared a few historical facts and said, "By some estimates, the average life span of a climber was just five years." Five years. He talked about how horrific this was, especially given the fact that a mechanical brush had been invented almost a century before, but many homeowners didn't want sweeps to use it, "claiming that the brushes did not do as thorough a job as young climbers."

These dire facts might have overwhelmed the story if not for the fantasy aspect. Charlie lightened up the story considerably. Not only were his little questions and statements so innocent and funny ("Oh yes, you are doing privacy"), but knowing that he would protect Nan at all costs made it seem like the story would somehow turn out right. It was also fascinating to learn about the history of golems within the Jewish tradition.

But what really made this story jump up to the next level was that it had this undercurrent of love and compassion and hope. By the end, I cared deeply for Nan and Toby and Miss Bloom and Newt and, of course, Charlie.

At one point, Nan and Toby were eating amaretto ice on top of a roof (yes, there were still some very idyllic moments, in spite of the hardship). Nan confided her fears regarding Charlie: "I'm afraid . . . What if I can't protect him?" Toby answered, "That's what it is to care for a person. If you're not afraid, you're not doing it right."

I read this book out loud to my kids, and although it was a little bit difficult for 6-year-old Clark to follow, it was a completely immersive experience for the rest of us. We were wrapped up in Nan and Charlie's adventures, and as we got to the climax, we literally could not pull ourselves away from the story.

During one particularly tender moment, I couldn't keep the tears from leaking. Maxwell looked at me and said, "You're crying. You're actually crying." I've cried at the end of many other books, but for some reason, he seemed to take more notice of it this time. He has brought it up a couple of times since then ("Mom actually cried at the end of that book"), and I think it was maybe the first time he realized the power of a good story and how much it can make you feel.

Toby told Nan, "We save ourselves by saving others," and that was true for so many relationships in this book: the Sweep to Nan, Nan to Charlie, Miss Bloom to Nan . . . as well as one beautifully unexpected one that I won't spoil by sharing. But if there's one lesson I hope my kids took away from Nan's story, it was exactly that: We save ourselves by saving others. Isn't that so completely true?

Ta-ta, Tacro!

Jun 18, 2020

Some of you have maybe been wondering how Aaron is doing in the midst of this global pandemic. I'm so sorry I haven't kept up with the updates, but it was because there really wasn't anything to update about. In Aaron's case, no news is good news, and there hasn't been any new news for a really long time.

I suspected this would be the case way back in September when we first made up a treatment plan for Aaron. You might remember that when I outlined the steps, there was a big gaping hole of nothing for about six months. I labeled this "the isolation phase," and in my post where I talked about it, I said it looked like it would be "the longest and most boring phase of the entire process."

I said this before we even started, not knowing that in just a few short months, a worldwide quarantine would take our definition of "boring" to a whole new level.

The thing about the whole world being bored right along with you is that you no longer feel like you're the odd one out. For the first few weeks of quarantine, Aaron was practically giddy as he watched everyone else isolate themselves and wear masks just like he'd been doing for the previous six months.

The sad thing about the timing of all of this is that the BMT team started weaning Aaron off of tacro (the immunosuppressive drug) the same weekend as the country went under lockdown. The three-month weaning process is generally seen as a time when you can slowly lift restrictions and ease back into normal life.

But the exact opposite happened for us. We tightened everything up even more than we already had. We didn't see family, the other kids stopped going to school, Mike began working from home, we wiped down every package that was delivered and quarantined the mail, we had most of our food delivered, we stopped getting takeout, and Mike went through a whole germ-avoiding process on the rare occasions when he ventured out to the grocery store.

We anticipated this summer to be one of rejuvenation and excitement as we resumed some of our favorite activities and went on new adventures. Although that is not shaping up to be the case, we are still seriously celebrating because Aaron is doing so well. We are watching his body make a full and complete recovery, and it is just miraculous.

Once we began weaning him off of the tacro, we finally began to see some changes, good changes, in his blood counts. For months, they had been fairly stationary (platelets in the 200's (normal), hemoglobin around 11 (just below normal) and white blood cells between 1000 and 2000 (low)). But as the immunosuppressive drug has slowly left his system, those counts have been moving up again. At his last appointment two weeks ago,  his hemoglobin was 12.5 (normal) and his white blood cells were at 3000 (still low but getting close to normal).

He has continued to show no signs of GVHD. His latest chimerism looked good (the percentage of Maxwell's T-cells had gone back up). He has an abundance of energy (he's been running with me in the mornings). And his hair came back in extremely thick and wavy. He was holding onto it rather possessively, but he finally let Mike give him more than just a trim a week ago.

Today was extra-special because Aaron took his very last dose of tacro. We have been looking forward to this day for nine months. And I'm proud to say that in those nine months, we missed a total of only one dose. That felt pretty good to me, especially since there were a few months where we were giving it to him three times a day.

We celebrated at the stroke of 9:00am (Tacro Time) with cherry pie and vanilla ice cream. We'd been talking up the Tacro Party since the evening before, and after everyone finished eating their pie, they excitedly asked, "Now what? What's next for the party??" We admitted that eating celebratory pie was pretty much the only thing on the agenda, and they grumbled to themselves as they walked away, "I expected there to be a little more to this party . . . " But come on, what did they expect? We can't go anywhere or have anyone over, so our options were rather limited.

So now that Aaron is done with tacro, you might be wondering what the plan is going forward. His doctors are now looking towards September, which will be his one-year transplant anniversary. At that point they will take him off of his last two medications (a prophylactic antibiotic and antiviral), do some of his baseline tests again (lungs, heart, etc.), and hand him over to a hematologist for future follow-ups.

As we were wrapping up Aaron's appointment a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Harris said, "Come September, Aaron, you can do whatever you want!"

I'm not exactly sure what that means in light of the global health crisis we're all facing, but it was a nice sentiment anyway, and I liked the sound of it.

A Little of This and That in May

Jun 7, 2020

As I look back over the month of May, I am legitimately shocked that all of these things happened within a few weeks of each other. The activities that happened in the first half feel like soooooo long ago. I guess moving will do that to you. It seems like we stepped into a different life. This month found us . . .

Catching . . . snakes. We took another little weekend trip to the cabin. We are so lucky Mike's parents have this little place so we can have a change of scenery. The weather was so lovely this time, and we spent many hours outside enjoying it. There is a little stream that runs past the cabin, and my kids always have so much fun floating things down it or tossing pebbles into it. But this time, it produced an even greater gift: three garter snakes--small, medium, and large (or baby, teenager, and mom, as the boys labeled them). These three snakes provided hours of entertainment. The boys released them into the water or grass and watched them slither around before re-catching them. They let them slide between their fingers and over their hands and arms. They built a makeshift terrarium so they could observe them without fear of them getting away. Basically, it was just the best afternoon for them. When it came time to let them go, Maxwell begged and begged to take one home and acted like it was the greatest injustice of his life when I said no. (And, in case you were wondering, no, I did not hold, or even touch, any of the snakes.)

Holding . . . a virtual piano recital. Several months ago, I planned and scheduled a spring recital for my piano students. It was supposed to be on May 7th. I realized many weeks ago that it would probably not be able to happen as planned, so I decided to switch to a virtual recital instead. My students still prepared and memorized their pieces as they normally would, and then they each recorded themselves in their own homes. They sent the videos to me, and I (actually Mike) compiled them all into one video that could then be watched from start to finish, just as you might attend a normal recital. It actually worked out really well--with the caveat that I think it ended up being rather nerve wracking for some to perform in front of a camera. Even though you had the option of recording your piece as many times as you wanted, I discovered that the pressure mounted with each repetition, and so recording more than once wasn't overly beneficial. It was also a good exercise for me in letting go of control because even though I sent very detailed instructions on how to record, people chose to do their own thing, and I just had to be okay with it.

Feeling . . . so spoiled on Mother's Day. The night before, Mike asked me, "What are your expectations for Mother's Day?" I told him I had absolutely none. In fact, with all of the busyness surrounding buying a house, I'd pretty much forgotten about it entirely (hence, my own mom got her present two weeks late). He said, "That's good," leading me to think he hadn't thought about it much either. So I was quite surprised when I received two necklaces with the boys' names engraved on them, as well as a few other presents, that were definitely not last minute gifts. It was obvious that he was thinking about Mother's Day weeks in advance, and that made everything feel even more special. Clark made me a flower headband out of paper, and the day was peppered with cute notes, yummy food, and lots of hugs. My non-existent expectations were far exceeded.

Receiving . . . the news that a spot in the gifted program opened up for Clark. Last month, I shared that Clark was on the waiting list for the program. I hoped that enough people would decline their invitations that there would be room for him, and that's what ended up happening.

Visiting . . . Alisa's grave. This was such a peaceful, beautiful afternoon in an otherwise crazy month. I have always loved wandering around cemeteries, studying the names and dates of people I've never met and wondering about their lives, and I was surprised by how much my kids enjoyed it, too. It is hard to believe that Alisa has been gone for five years. So much has happened during that time that we would have loved to share with her.

Inspecting . . . our new home. I find home inspections rather depressing, albeit informative. By the end of it, we had a long list of everything that was wrong with the home we wanted to buy. Some of it we already knew (sagging fence, unsafe balcony), but some of it was a surprise (radon in the basement, an old roof). As the inspector tapped through all of his incriminating photos, I saw time and money disappearing in a blink. But here's the thing: if you buy a house that is over fifty years old, it is bound to come with a few problems. If we didn't have these specific issues, then there would be others. And at least we know what we're dealing with upfront so we can budget and prioritize. Even though it sounded like a lot to us, our inspector assured us that the home was average, or even above average, compared to what he sees every day, so that was somewhat comforting.

Closing . . . on our new house! Everything went so smoothly with the purchase of this house. The sellers were accommodating and easy to work with. The financing and loan went quickly so that we were actually able to close ten days sooner than expected. It was a joy to work with the same realtor we had when we bought our first home six years ago. He has been in the realty business for sixty years, and we trust his intuition and expertise so much. He has become a dear friend to us over the years, and we felt so blessed to have him help us through the process.

Learning . . . how to parallel park. It was one of my goals for 2020, so for a romantic Friday date night, Mike and I headed to the church parking lot. He parked his car and spaced a stack of boxes a car's length behind it, and then he guided me through wriggling into the tight spot with our van. I went through the whole process several times and only bumped into the boxes once. However, I think it's going to take more than one lesson before I feel confident enough to do it downtown in real life.

Packing . . . up our entire house. I hope the memory of this week lasts me a long time so that I don't try to move again! I'll admit, we didn't take the most efficient route--we mostly did it ourselves with a pickup truck and our van, and that ended up being a lot of trips. There was one day in particular where I thought I was going to have a breakdown: we were halfway out of our old house and halfway into the new house, and it just felt like there was chaos everywhere I looked. But luckily, as we continued to plug away at it, the old house emptied out, and we stopped making things worse and could instead start making them better. Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley were all extremely helpful, and Mike and I both agreed that we couldn't have done it without them.

Paying . . . someone to clean our old house. The last time we moved six years ago, I vowed to myself that I would never again clean a house I was moving out of. And I stayed true to my word. After we moved out all of our stuff, Veronica came over with her cleaning supplies. I went back to the new house to unpack boxes (and do laundry, which never stops, even when you move). Six hours later, Veronica was done, and our old house was transformed. It was seriously some of the best money I've ever spent.

Combining . . . imaginations for truly epic adventures. I'm so glad Clark and Ian have each other because they are two kids who were cut from the same cloth. Every day, they wake up and become someone new: a couple of superheroes, a dad and his son, a dog and his master, a horse and a cowboy. They dress up and give each other different names and completely immerse themselves in whatever they are playing. It gives me so much joy to watch them together.

Finding . . . renters for our old house. And not just any renters, but Mike's cousin, David, and his sweet family! The thought of renting our home was giving me some real anxiety. I just didn't know how to go about finding trustworthy, conscientious, responsible people. And while renting our home seemed like a good idea in theory, the reality is that with the wrong people there, it could turn into a financially draining nightmare. While all of these worries were going through my head, Mike was doing the dishes one night when he suddenly had the thought, I wonder if David would want to rent our house? Although we knew David and his family had moved to Salt Lake last summer for David to do his residency, we didn't have any reason to suspect that they were looking to move. But Mike called David anyway, and lo and behold, they were looking for a new place! What's more, their lease ended on June 1st, just a couple of weeks after we closed on our new house. The whole thing felt divinely orchestrated to me, and we are so grateful that David and Emilee can now enjoy the home and neighborhood we love so much.

Waving . . . to our teachers in a reverse parade. We made it to the last day of school. The teachers all stood on the sidewalk at the top of the school, and we drove down the street waving to them and telling them to "have a good summer!" and "we'll see you in the fall!" It was the strangest school year ever, but we made it through, mostly because these teachers rose to the challenge and put their hearts into virtual teaching.

Meeting . . . new neighbors. I thought the pandemic was going to make it really difficult to meet people in our new neighborhood, but our neighbors have truly surprised us. They've gone out of their way to pull over and say hello if we're outside, stop to chat if they're on a walk, bring us dinner and treats, text with information about the ward and neighborhood, and wave and smile across the street. We were very fortunate that there was a neighborhood walkabout scheduled on our very first evening in our new home, and that made it possible for us to meet quite a few people all at once. For the most part, everyone has been very respectful of Covid-19 boundaries (with the possible exception of two older couples who walked right into our entryway bearing gifts of food), and it has done my heart good to feel so loved right from the start. I hope I can reciprocate to some neighbors in the future.

Celebrating . . . Clark's sixth birthday. He had been excitedly counting down the days for over six months. It was thrilling when the number was small enough that he no longer had to ask Siri but was able to do the math himself. He had very specific requests for food, presents, cake, activities, etc. That is very typical of Clark. He likes things to be just so. He had been holding covert conferences with Mike for months about what he wanted his birthday cake to look like. He wouldn't let any of the rest of us know what it was. Luckily, Mike was able to bring his vision to life, and we were all surprised when he cut into a cake that looked like the Mandalorian helmet and a bunch of Baby Yodas spilled out of it. Clark was ecstatic. I also organized a little bike ride with a couple of Clark's friends. It was surprisingly stressful because it was harder than I thought it was going to be to keep these friends six feet apart, but what did I expect after two months of not seeing each other?

Building . . . bunkbeds. When we moved, we decided not to bring Ian's crib with us. It had lasted through all five boys, and it was pretty trashed. Plus, at three years old, there was no reason that Ian couldn't move into a bed . . . except that we didn't actually have a bed for him. Mike had long been saying that he wanted to build a new set of bunkbeds. He had already built one set a couple of years ago, and it was actually much sturdier than the manufactured set we already owned. So building a matching set was one of the first things he did after we moved in. The boys all helped paint it, and now Bradley and Ian have a new bed.

Getting . . . wet on hot days. The month of May ended with a heat wave. Our neighborhood pool hasn't opened up yet (and even when it does, we're not sure if we'll feel safe to go), so we made some water fun in the front yard, thanks to a birthday gift from Grandma Jill and Grandpa Paul. I anticipate this getting even more use in the next two months.

That's it for this month. If you were hoping to see a bit more of the inside of our house, you'll have to wait. It has been fairly slow getting rooms put together. Even though our new house is bigger, our stuff isn't fitting into it in the same way, so it is taking some time. But it's giving us plenty to do in June!

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