Unlike Dickens, Michael does not idealize the hero. Nor is the adventure dressed up as high-falutin literature or gushy melodrama. In fact, the narrative of Joe Sowerby (also known as Tom, also known as Nat, etc.) is frank, fast-paced, and unsparingly honest. At times it was hard for me to continue reading this book because I almost gave up waiting for Joe to develop some redeeming characteristics. Indeed, he does not begin to change for the better — nor does his life — until close to the end of the book. In the meantime, his tale gives what may be a realistic picture of the plight of the poor in his time: escaping from a brutal apprenticeship, trying to survive on the run, joining a carnival, ditching his disturbingly different little sister, running with a street gang in the ghettos of Manchester. He witnesses shocking violence and horrible sanitation, participates in petty crime (and one that maybe isn’t so petty), visits hospitals that were ahead of their time but clearly far behind ours, attracts the benevolence of a wealthy gentleman, and gets caught up in a campaign for social change… all within a few weeks.
But the really important change in this story is the one that happens within Joe, sending him on a desperate search for his lost sister, only one of the many children who fell victim to the ways of their world. The book finally leaves anger and desperation behind, and closes with scenes at once eerie and tender, joyful and sad.
It isn’t an easy book to read. Joe isn’t an easy hero to sympathize with. Perhaps you will find that the ending repays all your struggle through the middle parts — though the same cannot be said for many of the tragic lives depicted in its pages. Or perhaps a journey amid the horrors, heartbreaks, dangers, and magics of lower-class life in early 19th century England will make you feel better about your own world. For many people, it was experiences like Joe’s that led to changes that made life better for millions of people. But it is right, now and then, to recognize what the people of yesterday experienced on the road to a better today.