Stephen B. Hauge’s Dark Against the Sky is an accomplished Dickensian morality tale for young adults, set in London in 1834,
Young Tommy is snatched from his parents and coerced into working as a climbing boy for the “swarthy” master sweep, Mr. Kelly. Tim, Paul, Peter, and Harry are also forced into this “barbaric” and “horrid trade,” and the five parentless chums form a “band of brothers,” protecting one another from Kelly’s sleights and slaps, provisioning the rare piece of fruit or crust of bread to split equally, and plucking up each other’s disconsolate spirits.
Every day but Sunday during October and until May, the boys ascend into a chimney’s “pitch-black darkness” mindful that any misstep or wrong turn might plummet them to their deaths or trap them in a suffocating flue. Kelly pockets their wages and beats them if they don’t clean four chimneys before noontime. Tommy’s memories of his mother’s cooking and “smiling” blue eyes and his father’s storytelling and strong, cobbler hands sustain him throughout his daily grind. He’s determined to reunite with his parents, and he and Peter devise a risky and adventurous plan to find them.
Hauge is a skillful storyteller. He renders the squalor of 19th century London in prose that is as precise as it is palpable. Manifest is the relentless cold, hunger, penury, and cruelty under which Hauge’s resiliently pragmatic characters toil: A comparison to Oliver Twist is apt praise. The novel’s dialogue echoes a pitch-perfect cockney accent, and the plot insists that salvation prevails.
Smart problem solving and Tommy’s brave leadership help the climbing boys conquer seemingly insurmountable obstacles on their own, which serves as a lesson in self-sufficiency for the novel’s young adult audience.
Dark Against the Sky is an authentic, evocative, and classic portrayal of the human capacity to endure. It is a winning tale.
Also available in hardcover.