Book review: The Orphan Child by Catherine King

Desperate times call for desperate measures when Yorkshire scullery maid Sarah Meadow is threatened with the workhouse.

Destitute, homeless and jobless, the 14-year-old decides to dress as a boy and take her chances in a man’s world.

It’s a gamble that could make or break her.

Catherine King’s new novel has all the grit and grind that we have come to expect from a writer with the magical power to blend realism with heart-melting romance.

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Born in the tough pit town of Rotherham in South Yorkshire, King knows only too well the dirt and deprivation of the coal, steel and iron industries.

Using her roots as her inspiration, she weaves spellbinding stories of the hardy, hard-pressed folk who fought to make ends meet in the harsh decades of the 19th century.

And Sarah Meadow didn’t have an auspicious start in life - her mother died in the snow on a Christmas night in 1829 within minutes of her child being born.

Found wrapped in an old petticoat by two stable lads at Meadow Hall in the South Riding, Sarah is taken in by the servants and cared for by a gardener’s wife until she’s old enough to work in the kitchens.

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Life’s not easy for the skinny little girl – as the youngest of the servants, she has to sleep in a cold, draughty bed, rise first to light the fires in the kitchen range and suffer the cook’s slaps and slights.

Sarah simmers with resentment and sets her heart on running away. When the master dies heavily in debt, the hall is put up for sale and, facing the prospect of the workhouse, she puts her plan into action.

She has no idea where she’ll go or what she’ll do, but for the first time in her life no-one is telling her what to do and she relishes the freedom.

Her only chance of going it alone is to dress as a boy and when she meets Aidan Beckwith, an 18-year-old youth who is also looking to make a new future for himself, and wild boy Danby Jones, they team up together.

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It doesn’t take long for the two young men to discover that ‘Sam’ is really a girl and that is when the problems start.

Good-hearted Aidan knows that Sarah’s future will be compromised if she stays with them and reluctantly takes her to the workhouse to be cared for.

He vows that he will come back for her just as soon as he can raise some money but there are hidden dangers which threaten both his promise,,,and his life.

A compelling and compassionate romance from a born storyteller.

(Sphere, hardback, £19.99)