The first thing I would like to say about this fairytale is that is trying rather pointedly to have a point. That point is two things. One, the exhortation to good little boys and girls to lead a Christian life and two, the encouragement to adopt the idea of evolution. Since this is only written 4 years after Darwin's book it is quite a shocking accomplishment. That being said, it is rather plainly judgemental in some parts, but oddly enough it seems to be endearingly so because it is right in your face. It is a good picture of the times if nothing else, and one that the author encourages us not to take too seriously since it is, after all, only a fairytale.
The story tells of Tom a little boy who has a hard life as a chimney sweep at the hands of his nasty master, Mr. Grimes. He is mistaken to be stealing something from a wealthy family that he is working for and gets chased over hill and dale until he falls asleep in a river and "dies". As it turns out he has simply become a water baby which is a stage in life where a person can live underwater and become "clean" while learning valuable life lessons about the way the world works. There is a brilliant philosophical passage on whether or not water babies exist and how one can know anything at all. "but the wiser man are the less they talk about 'cannot'."
"The most wonderful and the strongest things in the world, you know, are just the things which no one can see. There is life in you; and it is the life in you which makes you grow, and move, and think; and yet you can't see it"
The novel reminded me a lot of Pilgrims Progress which I loved. I do however, think this is a slightly inferior version of it because many of the allusions got muddled halfway through the telling of them and the other half seemed to blatant for my liking. The book did a wonderful job of describing the vast and interesting life in the seas and rivers. The creatures described were so fantastical, but pointed to very real and unusual things that live in the water, things like anemone's, sea slugs, and varying forms of fish.
The last things I will say about novel is it stopped and made me think about some of the aspects of my own faith. It had a brilliant observation about one of the fairies who helped make Tom into who he became at the end of the novel. The fairy stated that although many people could make things, only she could "sit here and make them make themselves". I think it is true that God does allows us to create ourselves and sits back giving us subtle corrections and guidances, but allowing us to do the work. That is the one aspect of free will that I definitely love. The other aspect of free will is the harder. As part of his task in life he has to set out to dowhathedoesnotwant. He has to find Mr. Grimes who has since died by falling into the water. He is in a fantastical land where he is trapped with his hands in the chimney. Tom stands by helpless and wants to do something for him, but has to discover that Mr. Grimes is the only person who can help himself. It is one of the hardest lessons to learn that people are responsible for their own lives. I see that everyday in my job with addicted youth and adults. If others try to do the work for them, they never learn the hard lessons. Sometimes the most caring thing a person can do for someone trapped in addiction is to allow them to fully experience the consequences of their addiction. The codependent care taking that happens may feel like love, but often times means that a person will stay caught in their behaviours. I love the song Timshel (which means thou mayest) by Mumford and Sons describes this beautifully by the chorus which says ,"but you are not alone in this/ you are not alone in this/ as brothers we will stand and we'll hold your hand" followed by the last line of the song, "But I can't move the mountains for you".
I only rated this novel 3 stars out of 5 because I didn't fully have my engaged in it. It was a cute story, with a few valuable lessons, but it wasn't brilliant in its execution. Although charming and quaint it is not a novel I would recommend to everyone, particularly because it is judgemental.