Joe and Annie, brother and sister, were left by their desperate mother at the workhouse when they were very little. She promised she would soon return for them, but years went by, and she never did. Instead, they are farmed out to a horrible, abusive family who appear bent on working them and starving them until they are too weak to work or eat. The story opens with Annie, the younger of the two, being hit so hard on the head by the enraged "Mistress" that she is knocked unconscious. She and Joe are locked in the shed with the chickens, and Joe realizes that if they don't manage to escape somehow, they will never survive.
To complicate matters, Annie is an unusual child - she can see ghosts, and she can channel spirits of the dead, speaking with their voices. Joe is annoyed by this, and although her spirit-voices give useful warnings and advice, and he never seems to believe them except retrospectively. Their desperate flight to Manchester, where they believe their mother went, leads them through the countryside where they encounter a friendly tramp, a bizarre dog-like woman in the forest, and a traveling carnival - and to the city, where Joe encounters incredible poverty and gangs of street urchins, among other inhabitants of the city.
I was attracted to this novel because of its Dickensian feel, and it is certainly a vivid illustration of the difficult times the poor endured during the Victorian era in England. In fact, the book was inspired by a true story the author heard about an old farm near her house:
Many years before, a farmer and his wife had taken in a young boy and girl from the workhouse to work on the farm. Time passed, yet people noticed that the children didn't seem to get any older. Then a mother came looking for her children, and the horrible truth emerged: The farmer and his wife had been working the children to death and replacing them with similar-looking children from different workhouses.
While I enjoyed the book for the most part, I found Joe to be a difficult character to like, and at times I lost sympathy for him altogether and found it difficult to care what happened to him. What further alienated me from the book at those times was that his actions didn't seem fully believable to me. For example, he risks his life to get his sister to safety when they escape the farm. He takes great care of her during the days following, remembering how his mother had exhorted him to take care of Annie. When he later suddenly abandons her - not just leaving her, but taking a coin in return for leaving her, it just didn't make sense to me - it seemed more that the author was controlling his actions to make a point than a natural result of the character's personality and the narrative flow of the book. When I get the sensation that the author is moving characters about like pawns in order to serve her ends, it throws me out of the story.
Still, I kept reading - for while I couldn't care too much about Joe, the book was very interesting indeed. I think that children unfamiliar with the conditions that existed back then will be fascinated by this journey into the darker side of Victorian England, and they will come to respect Joe by the end of the book, as I did. This would be a good choice to read with children, or as a child/parent book club pick - there is fodder here for wonderful discussions.
The Whispering Road by Livi Michael (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005)
Also reviewed by:
A Fort Made of Books: "It isn’t an easy book to read. Joe isn’t an easy hero to sympathize with. Perhaps you will find that the ending repays all your struggle through the middle parts—though the same cannot be said for many of the tragic lives depicted in its pages."