Thursday 1 July 2021

THE TWISTED THREADS OF POLLY FREEMAN by Pippa Goodhart. Review by Penny Dolan


As I'm a fan of historical fiction, I'm starting this month with my thoughts on Pippa Goodhart’s new historical novel for 9-11yrs, THE TWISTED THREADS OF POLLY FREEMAN, which starts in London in 1838. 


 The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman (Bog, Paperback ...


 Polly is a compelling, likeable main character, as clever as “a little brown sparrow” according to her only relative, Aunt Em, who was once a lady’s maid. They survive in a cold, empty basement room by sewing shirt-pieces, embroidering fabric scraps and by low level deceit and theft. Nevertheless, the reader sees that Polly and Aunt Em are also so close to starvation that stealing is their only choice.

Lively and practical, the pair weave lies and stories with ease, often for their own fun. But, after Polly recklessly makes fun of their landlady, Mrs Proudfoot, and a pick-pocketing jaunt goes wrong, she turns them in to the law. Because Aunt Em pretends to be a lunatic, she and Polly end up in St Pancras Workhouse instead of prison but it is still a terrible, frightening place. 

Separated from her Aunt and sent to pick oakum, Polly is helped by Min, a girl with a weak chest and bad cough and they become firm friends. When a chance comes to travel north, with rumours of a big house where they’ll eat roast beef and have linen sheets on their beds, Polly is clever enough to get them both on that chosen cart.

Of course, as they glimpse the gaunt, starved children of the Nottingham factory, Polly sees this as a lie. Fortunately, the carter takes the girls onwards, to the great Quarry Bank Mill (still existing as a National Trust site and working museum near Winslow). 

Lodged in the Apprentices House, Polly and Min are treated fairly and kindly by Mr and Mrs Dawson, and gradually make friends with the local children at the mill. Through Polly’s eyes, we see the conditions, the work and the scale of the water-mill machinery within Quarry Bank Mill, and the pressure on young apprentices and mill-hands. Polly, quick to speak and act, often ends up in trouble, and eventually in intended danger. Gradually, the skills with a needle and thread Polly learned from Aunt Em start to stitch a way to a better future.

The novel has other twists to resolve on its pages: Polly’s search for her lost father, her longing for Aunt Em, her unseen apprenticeship papers and more.

Meanwhile, threaded between all of Polly’s adventures is the underlying story of how Britain’s great cotton industry thrived on the toil of the poorly-paid mill-hands and on the slavery in the cotton fields of America, made more emphatic by bold, lively Polly’s own mixed heritage. The novel quietly but cleverly weaves several threads of Victorian social history into one exciting tale.

Cambridge author Pippa Goodhart's new twist on Dickens

As a keen reader of historical fiction, I really appreciated Pippa Goodhart’s well-balanced writing, the mix of fiction and fact she wove into the novel, and the historical notes and thoughts at the back of The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman.

However, as a sensitive reader, I might not be able to forget those ladlefuls of lumpy grey porridge dropped straight into the apprentice’s open, grimy palms. Why use bowls when fingers could be licked clean so much more quickly, especially when working in a cotton mill? 

One of the small but memorable snippets hidden away in The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman.

The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman (Bog, Paperback ...

Review by Penny Dolan



Mystica said...

Nice to see historical fiction for youngsters. Thank you for the update.

Susan Price said...

This sounds wonderful.

Pippa Goodhart said...

What a lovely surprise to find when I looked at today's ABBA blog! Thank you so much, Penny!