Monday, February 22, 2010

The Gate in the Wall

Ellen Howard
Atheneum Books for Young Readers 1999

Ever since she was seven, Emma has known nothing but long, grueling days at work in the silk factory. While her sister stays home with a sickly new baby and her sister's drunken, abusive husband looks for work, Emma's wages are the only thing keeping bread on the table. Battered, numb, and ragged, Emma never imagines that another world, another life, lies just on the other side of the wall.

One day, late for work, shut out from the factory and terrified of the beating she'll get back home, Emma sees an open gate in the wall and steps through to find a shining canal and a long, painted boat full of potatoes. Half starved, Emma doesn't think the owner of the boat will miss just one. But when the surly old boatwoman comes back and finds out what Emma has done, she presses Emma into service to pay for the missing potato.

At first Emma thinks she'll run away back to her sister's house at the first opportunity, but as the days go on Emma comes to love her new life on the canal. For the first time in years she's clean and well fed, and she enjoys walking all day alongside the horse that pulls the canal boat. Still, Emma can't help worrying about her sister, and about her little nephew. Emma struggles to choose between deserting her sister and deserting the boatwoman who has given her a new chance at life.

The Gate in the Wall reveals a world within a world, a colorful society of boatpeople with their own fascinating culture that flourished on the canals alongside and almost outside the grim, sooty reality of the industrial revolution. Throughout the book I enjoyed watching Emma bloom in their community, journey from abused factory waif to confident young woman. Recommended for ages nine and up.

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