Children's Literature

11th August 1995 at 01:00
THE CELLAR LAD. By Theresa Tomlinson. Julia MacRae Pounds 9.99. - 1 85681 581 1.

Age range 10 - 12

The year is 1842, and in the opening chapter of The Cellar Lad, young Ben Sterndale is enjoying his last day of freedom roaming through Ecclesall Woods before going to join his father in the steelworks. His friends the charcoal burners are still free spirits with an opportunity to roam and, as it turns out, agitate for the Chartists.

Despite this sense of loss, Ben enjoys his work at Dyson's Yard, where his father is the potman baking the clay crucibles for the molton steel. But then Ben is a good lad, at home among the camaraderie of men and women doing dangerous work and happy to be sent hither and thither.

Dyson's Yard is now Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in the leafy south-west of Sheffield and Tomlinson is accurate with her local history. Her real subject is the rise of Chartism and the determination of the unions to protect their closed shop.

The book is something of a history lesson. The author doesn't avoid the horrors of the workhouse, and the debilitating diseases and shortened lifespans the steelworkers had to endure. The grinders, particularly, seemed doomed, inhaling a lethal dust and risking the grinding wheel exploding in their faces. With so little to look forward to, the grinders were the fiercest and most fearless in their battles with employers.

It is odd, then, that there is a strangely sanitised feel to this wholly worthy novel for children in late primary-early secondary years. This is partly because Ben is so good, his home life so warm, and he is such a good child carer when his father and grandma take in a young waif destined for the workhouse.

It's also because the point of view is so firmly fixed in the workers' own perspective, there is a lack of conflicting opinion. When Ben's grandma, watching a Chartist procession, declares "'They're decent hardworking folk . . . Why should they not have the vote?'", there's no one to argue with her.

Poor Old Dyson setting on two non-union grinders and facing the destruction of his grinding hull is a fleshless victim and feeble enemy never brought to life.

Tomlinson does, however, present a strong sense of community, and handles pathos well. The Cellar Lad - helped by the inclusion of 19th-century etchings - succeeds in putting history on its feet.

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