Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Whispering Road - Livi Michael

Livi Michael's The Whispering Road is an historical novel, set in the mid-19th century, with a fantastical element. It tells a moving and powerful story about a brother and sister, Joe and Annie, who flee from their pitiful existences as servants on a farm. The story is told from Joe's point of view and recounts how they embark on a difficult, even perilous, journey to Manchester from a farm out in the remote countryside. Joe and Annie are searching for their mother who, years earlier, had been forced to leave them at a workhouse. The fantastical element of this story is that Annie is a medium, she is in contact with spirits, and can reproduce their voices when channelling them.

After running away from Bent Edge Farm, Joe and Annie encounter Travis, a tramp, who tells them stories, including one about a group of angels who, having come down to earth to foretell the birth of Christ, refuse to return to Heaven. They gain bodies and remain on the earth as tramps; but one does not become a full human, instead she is a Dog-Woman - she can speak but she lives with a pack of wolves and dogs in a forest near where Travis, Joe and Annie are sheltering in a cave. Travis teaches Joe how to hunt using a sling (just like David in one of Joe's favourite stories); he also makes rough shoes and fur garments for Joe and Annie, before setting them on the Road. They make their way to the Forest and, sure enough, they encounter the Dog-Woman who feeds them, protects them with the pack and then leads them through the Forest to a town on the other side. They find a pub where Joe tells a story about Jack the Giant Killer, in the hope of earning a meal, but his former employer is amongst the audience, and a fight ensues from which Joe and Annie barely escape. They fall in with a man named Barney who takes them to a market and tries to sell them. Escaping from Barney, they next fall in with a travelling circus. Annie's abilities as a medium are revealed and Honest Bob, the fair owner, offers to buy Annie from Joe so that Joe can go off and do whatever suits him, and Annie can become the new star act.

Once free of his sister, Joe falls in with a gang of children called the Little Angels and Joe, who rarely tells anyone his real name, becomes known as Dodger. He thoroughly enjoys life on the streets of Manchester, stealing food from stall-owners, and valuables from passers-by, but two of the children in the gang drink dirty water and develop cholera. Lookout, one of the boys, dies, but Pigeon survives for a while. When Joe realises that Pigeon will die too, he goes in search of a doctor to treat her. None will, but one housekeeper tells him of the nearby hospital where they will take in someone like Pigeon. Joe and two of the other boys get Pigeon to the hospital, but when Joe goes back to see the doctor the following day he collapses from malnutrition. He's taken in by Mr Sheridan Mosley, the fictional cousin of Sir Oswald Mosley, 4th Baronet (not the Oswald Mosley who founded the British Union of Fascists, but his father). He's cared for whilst he's ill, fed, clothed and taught to read by a Sunday School teacher, who treats Joe as an idiot, much to his annoyance. One day Joe gets into an argument with Mr Mosley and attacks him with his cane. Leaving him bleeding on the street, he runs off to Abel Heywood, whom he has previously met, for help. Abel Heywood writes and prints The Poor Man's Guardian, a cheap, illegal, newspaper for the poor. He gives Joe somewhere to live and a job delivering copies of the newspaper around Manchester to groups of workers and poor people. One day, however, Joe realises he needs to find Annie again, and a search for Honest Bob and his fair ensues. Eventually they discover Annie in Ancoats Hospital, where she has been in a catatonic state almost since Joe left her with Honest Bob. Joe feels enormous guilt for what he's done and sets about trying to bring Annie back to herself.

I strongly recommend Livi Michael's The Whispering Road.

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