Pratchett, Terry. Dodger.

NY: Harper, 2012.

A new book from Sir Terry is always a cause for celebration, and this one is no exception. It’s also somewhat unlike any he’s done before, being in the way of an “historical fantasy,” as he himself describes it.

It’s around 1848 (from internal evidence) and a young street denizen in his late teens, known only as “Dodger” — because he’s never there when someone tries to grab him — is making his way through life in the Seven Dials neighborhood of London. It’s a horrific place to live, the level of poverty being quite beyond the imagining of any Yank or Brit of today, but Dodger actually manages better than most. He shares an attic room with Solomon Cohen, an elderly Jewish craftsman with an apparently fascinating personal history (about which we are only ever given hints), and Sol has taught him about the necessity of hygiene and the use of lye soap. Dodger earns his way as a tosher, one of the blokes who work the sewers, harvesting lost coins and jewelry, mostly, and at which he reckons he makes as much as a good chimney-sweep. He’s also an accomplished thief, pickpocket, lock-pick, and burglar, though Sol discourages such activities, and he’s capable of violence when it’s called for, but he’s basically one of the Good Guys. He tries to get along with everyone and he’s never killed anyone.

And then one night, in a furious rain storm, he surges up through a sewer grating in response to a girl’s cries for help and rescues her from her captors, who have beaten her badly. The two passing gents who jump in to help turn out to be Charlie Dickens, a story-writer and journalist, and Henry Mayhew, who spends his time investigating the plight of the city’s working classes. They try to take the girl off his hands, but Dodger is smitten with her. No way is he going to turn loose of her. And from there, the story spreads out over London as Dodger begins to remake himself in order to save his lady-love, who is in danger from an assassin employed by Evil Forces. He becomes a public hero — twice — makes the acquaintance of a rising politician named Disraeli and a young engineer named Bazalgette (who has a special interest in sewers), has a run-in with Sir Robert Peel (the head copper), and is taken under the wing of Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts, the richest woman in the Western world who isn’t a queen, and one of Britain’s greatest philanthropists ever.

As always, Pratchett’s style is a combination of dry wit and droll description (plus the occasional footnote) as he tells a bang-up adventure and at the same time quietly educates the reader about the reality of early Victorian London. It’s a good, fun read from one of the most humane writers in the English language.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on jackconner and commented:
    I’ve been looking forward to this one, too, but now that it’s here I can’t let myself read it for one simple fact: embarrassing as this is, I’ve never read Dickens’s “Oliver Twist”. We never read it in school, and though I’ve read some DIckens books as an adult on my own (David Copperfield and Great Expectations), I haven’t gotten around to that one yet. And I like to read books that other books are based on first, if I can. That said, I’ve been looking for a used paperback of it for months, and as soon as I find one in decent condition I will devour it. I really enjoyed Great Expectations.


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