Infants of the Brush: A Chimney Sweep's Story is historical fiction based on Armory v. Delamirie, a 1700s court case before the King's Bench against Paul de Lamerie, a silversmith. In the vein of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Infants of the Brush is set in a time when London society ignored the ills of child labor. Unlike the gleeful chimney sweeps portrayed in Mary Poppins, climbing boys were forced up burning flues to dislodge harmful soot and coal ash.
Egan Whitcombe is just six years old when he is sold to Master Armory for a few coins that his family desperately needs. As one of Master Armory's eight broomers, Egan quickly learns that his life depends on absolute obedience and the coins he earns.
Pitt, the leader of Master Armory's broomers, teaches Egan to sweep chimneys and negotiate for scraps of bread. Broken and starving, the boys discover friendship as they struggle to save five guineas, the cost of a broomer's independence.
Plot: The novel is well paced and skillfully plotted with gripping moments of tension.The climax will capture readers as completely as the sense of bittersweet relief at the end.
Prose: This prose is utterly engaging, straightforward, and rhythmic—featuring excellent descriptions of people and places.
Originality: Although this book features a classical Dickensian theme and voice, the story feels original and unique.
Character Development: The characters superbly developed, vivid, and realistic.
Blurb: Watson's winning novel inspires compassion for these small boys, and relief that England's age of forced child labor has passed.
Date Submitted: April 03, 2018
Clarion Rating: 5 out of 5
Infants of the Brush is a captivating, emotional story that speaks to the powerful will to survive.
A novel about indentured boys who fight to earn five guineas for their freedom, Infants of the Brush: A Chimney Sweep’s Story enlivens 1720s London. A. M. Watson’s outstanding, immersive debut portrays the broomers whose hopes hang in the balance.
The book reimagines characters surrounding Armory vs Delamirie, a case in which a chimney sweep brought a jewel for appraisal to a shop, only to be refused the return of the jewel when he disagreed with its stated worth. The real-life sweep becomes the fictional Egan Whitcombe, a six-year-old at the novel’s start, who is sold when his father dies. His journey comprises the main thread around which other plot strands converge, culminating in the court’s ruling on finder’s rights and personal property that changes Egan’s life.
Lucid chapters shift between Armory, the plaintiff and master chimney sweep who buys Egan; Egan and his fellow broomers; and Lamerie, the silversmith whose apprentice is accused of theft. Scenes that feature the young outcasts—some from orphanages or workhouses, others sold—reveal the cruelty of their jobs alongside their invisibility. Choice descriptions paint the terror of climbing chimneys, the consequences of coming up short in their daily payments to their master, and the punishments that Armory inflicts. Bleak as child labor is, the story never entirely darkens, wisely refraining from making the broomers poster boys for an era’s social ills.
The book also avoids painting the boys as picaresque imps. A humane, affecting approach makes their fate palpable. Their spirited individuality shines through in colorful, period dialogue. In careful strokes, each is given a backstory and hopes for the future.
Sleeping in Armory’s cellar, left to scrape for their quotas, often starving and whipped, the boys comprise a brotherhood born of circumstance and sustained by need. Two especially stand out: Thomas Pitt, a thoughtful teen who assumes a protective role, and Egan, whom Thomas takes under his wing. Pitt is drawn as a principled boy whose guidance provides an anchor. Egan transforms from a frightened, unwilling recruit to a boy gripped by the realization that, despite help from others, he is still alone in many ways, and must find a way out of servitude himself.
The boys are given reprieves through the kindness of strangers, including a church’s parishioners, and through the seasonal nature of their job. Sections that explore their summer away from Armory’s brutality highlight how much they depend on one another. When tragedy hits, the event is timed in such a way that Egan is forced to take charge of his future.
Far from romanticizing London’s underbelly, Infants of the Brush turns the boys’ risks into a captivating, emotional story that speaks to the powerful will to survive.
Reviewed by Karen Rigby
July 25, 2018
Reviewed By A. L. Peevey for Readers’ Favorite
A.M. Watson’s Infants of the Brush: A Chimney Sweep's Story recounts the story of a handful of boys all but enslaved by a master chimney sweep. With his widowed mother desperate for money, Egan Whitcombe, aged six, is apprenticed to Daniel Armory for three crowns, and so begins an ordeal that Egan must embrace to the best of his ability or perish. As he longs to see his family again, Egan’s only solace is the tutelage of Thomas Pitt, the kind-hearted older apprentice who takes Egan under his wing, watching out for him the best that he can as he teaches Egan how to become a “broomer” or “climbing boy” in the perilous trade of chimney sweeping. Pitt also teaches him how to hide a little money here and there, to save enough to buy their freedom some day.
Enriched by and firmly rooted in historical fact, A.M. Watson’s Infants of the Brush does not mince words. Eighteenth century London, England is not a kind place for poor and homeless children. Watson delivers a heart-wrenching story of extremes, where young boys are exploited as they provide a needed service to the wealthy, who do not consider the danger inherent in chimney sweeping or the basic well-being of the boys. Yet, these same boys take joy in the simplest of pleasures such as getting a few extra mouthfuls of food or spending a few nights in a graveyard, a haven of peace compared to the cellar where they are usually put every night. Despite the horrible plight of Egan and his companions, this poignant story is well written, readable, and hopeful, offering us a view into another time, authentic in its use of dialect, and well worth the time of readers. A great book. Well done in every way!