We have been stuck a bit for historical fiction this go around. Not only has it been difficult to find books that fit into the time periods we’ve studied this year, but a few of the choices I’ve liked haven’t been as well-regarded by the kids. All this has been a disappointment for me after a year of so much American historical fiction. However, there’s just a dearth for this period. When we begin Asian history in a month or so, there will be a few more options.
One exception has been the book The Gate in the Wall by Ellen Howard. I had never heard of this book or author, which had very few reviews, but with so few options I bought it to give it a try and was very glad I did. It’s not a long book and follows the trials of Emma, a young girl who must work in a city mill to support her sister, nephew and brother-in-law. One day, Emma is locked out of the factory and wanders toward home, hungry and sad, and stumbles on an entrance to the canal towpath, where she steals a potato from an anchored canal boat and hides out in its warm hull. The next day, she finds herself taken away from all she knows to work on the canal. It’s hard work, but it may mean a better life.
This was a short and simple book with lovely descriptions full of little details that show a way of life that most of readers will know little about. Emma and the canal boat owner, Mrs. Minshull, are great, believable characters. While it might be difficult to have a story of the industrial revolution that both realistically shows life for working class children and ends on an upbeat note, this book manages to do it. Best of all for our purposes, the story gives a clear picture of life in the industrial revolution through Emma’s eyes. I haven’t seen this book on many lists, but if you’re doing early modern history, it really should go on your read alouds list.