Emmaline Roke’s story begins in the 1830s, in England. Her father worked a shop in a pleasant village, and all is well until her father’s death. At this point, the family is evicted from the shop, and Emmaline’s mother is forced into factory work to support the family. Emmaline dreams of being a seamstress and owning her own shop, but times being what they are—and having a mother like hers—makes that difficult.
After a bad accident that cripples her hand, Emmaline’s mother becomes addicted to opium (it was at first merely a pain killer). In desperation, she sells Emmaline’s younger brother, a deaf-mute, to a chimney sweep for a term of five years. She plans to use the money to buy more drugs. All the while, Emmaline has been resisting the offer of her wealthy aunt (her father’s sister) to move in with her under the condition that she break ties with her mother and brother, neither of whom her aunt approves.
In the end, the main conflict of the novel is Emmaline’s quest to find her brother in the big city and purchase or steal him back, a task made more difficult by the sketchy labor practices and unethical opportunists in the city. The title refers to a running motif that relates to Emmaline’s father, for whom she retains love and respect, but I thought more could have been done with it to increase the impact at the novel’s end.
The novel takes place in fictional settings, but (as the author’s note indicates) these settings are based on extensive research to capture the essence of the time period. In many ways, it reminded me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the way Emmaline’s parents are both absent in some way (typical of YA novels) and the way Emmaline has a stubborn streak in which she denies herself an easy life for the sake of taking the moral high ground.
In general I enjoyed this novel, though I felt it meandered a bit at times, hanging on certain chapters. But the second half of the book picked up as the focus shifted to finding her brother. The earlier chapters, however, did allow good insight into what life was like for the working class back then and would be a good way to introduce “modern” young adult readers to such an atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine life being that difficult, but this book effectively illustrated the difficulties Emmaline faced.