The Gate in the Wall

by Ellen Howard
Reviewed by Jeanne

A fascinating, moving tale of Industrial England and life on the canals.


Set in England during the Industrial Revolution, "The Gate in the Wall" is the story of young mill-worker Emma Deane. She lives a rough life with her older sister, Nancy, and her brother-in-law, Ben, and their baby, working in the nearby mill during the day to earn enough wages to keep them alive. But one day Emma arrives late to work and the doors of the mill are shut; on her way home she discovers a wooden gate in a wall, and, passing through, she finds a whole different way of life along the canals.


Emma's character grows and develops throughout the book, as evidenced in her morals. At the beginning she steals food, though she knows it to be wrong, and then lies about it; by the end, however, she is an honest and goodhearted girl.

Several people in the story are rough; Mrs. Minshull, the owner of the canal boat 'Cygnet' who takes Emma on to work, is harsh in word, but well meaning. Ben is said to have been kind to Nancy and Emma when he had work, but since losing that he has become somewhat abusive.

Spiritual Content

It is mentioned that Emma attended Sunday School, though mainly because of the food offered. Otherwise, none.


Ben sometimes hits Nancy or Emma, and once after he does, Emma tastes blood in her mouth. Mrs. Minshull sometimes threatens to "take her stick" to Emma, but she never means it. There is a reference to the fact that the mill-workers are hit if they do not work quickly enough, and that Emma was rapped on the knuckles for drawing on her Sunday School slate instead of copying her letters.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Ben is an alcoholic and frequents the pub, and at one point Emma sees a few drunk men coming from a tavern. Brandy is mixed with tea medicinally, and Emma drinks ale sometimes. It is mentioned that while taking care of Nancy's first baby, a neighbor "dosed it" and accidentally killed it.

Sexual Content


Crude or Profane Language or Content

It is stated that Mrs. Minshull swears when things go wrong. The expression "buggered off" - meaning to sneak away or desert - is used.


Inspired by Elizabeth Gaskell's novel "Mary Barton," this book is a story of the two different worlds of England's Industrial society - the harsh, dull work in the mills of the city, and the hard, honest work on the canals outside the towns' walls. Howard paints each with clarity and contrasts them well, and the historic details - right down to the dialect, which is clarified in the Glossary - are wonderful. Emma's own struggles are poignant and different aspects of the plot are drawn in well.

The overall theme of the story is bright and triumphant, but some points, such as Ben's alcoholism, may make this story too dark for young readers. It is, however, an excellent tale for those interested in the time period.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 4
Written for Age: 11-12

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