Bridie Sweeney is a slum-dwelling Victorian match girl. In her smoggy world of bone-weary souls, it’s hard to believe in the existence of magic. But as this is a fairytale, exist it does, in the form of three very special matches, the striking of which will illuminate Bridie’s path to an empowered future. The Little Match Girl Strikes Back by Emma Carroll is an audacious retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale, one in which, instead of dying quietly in the street, our heroine leads the match factory workers out on strike.
Based on real life events at the famous Bryant & May Match Factory, the scene is set in 1880’s east London, where Bridie lives with her sickly mother and 6-year-old brother, Fergal. To keep starvation and the landlord at bay, the three of them work for the match factory. All of London needs matches for ‘candles to read by, a stove lit, a soothing puff on a pipe.’ It’s a lucrative business for Mr Bryant but his workers earn a pittance.
The story takes place one snowy New Year’s Eve, when a series of events leaves Bridie at her lowest ebb. Just like her counterpart in Anderson’s original tale, she reaches for her matches, but in Bridie’s case their magic lights a political fire in her belly.
Carroll’s clever retelling weaves history into the magic. Bridie’s mother is sick because of the lethal phosphorus she works with at the factory. Her skirts glow with its toxic specks and her unknowing children find it beautiful, like ‘fairy dust or star shine.’ Not content with exploiting their workers, the bosses appear to be poisoning them too.
Thoughtfully, there are accompanying notes and photos from the scandalous Bryant & May case. With gorgeous production values (Lauren Child’s fabulous accompanying illustrations have an eye-catching red motif, signifying flames and defiance) and an appreciative nod to Anderson’s ‘sweet, sad’ original story, this is a collaborative triumph.
The Little Match Girl Strikes Back by Emma Carroll is published by Simon and Schuster Children’s, 208 pages.