(2012/3) Terry Pratchett, Corgi, £7.99, pbk, 403pp, ISBN 978-0-552-56314-7
This is the 2013 and first mass market paperback edition of the 2012 novel Dodger. Terry Pratchett is justifiably famous for his Discworld novels but that is not all he writes, as this book shows. He has written straight science fiction, books for the younger audience, and other novels and stories for those of all ages. Dodger is a one-off story, rather than part of a series, and is easily as suitable for the younger adult as for the adult.
It is set in the London of the early Victorian era and tells the rags-to-riches story of a lad who is simply called Dodger. Having been donated to an orphanage at a very early age, his mother probably never got round to giving him a real name (and his father was likely a ship passing in the night, so to speak) so the young child became named by his contemporaries for his ability to run and dodge.
He started his young 'career' as a mudlark, poking at low tide through the debris caught in the mud of the Thames in the hopes of finding something of sufficient value to buy him food for the day and shelter for the night. He progressed to toshing, which is similar in nature but takes place in the sewers. As one of the best toshers around, he could make six shillings a day, which was better 'pay' than most legitimate jobs such as chimney sweeping. It was hardly healthy, though better than breathing all that soot, and whilst the young Dodger thought of himself as having a long and prosperous future ahead of him, the truth is that he would be lucky to make it much past thirty.
It is the proverbial dark and stormy night when a young lady escapes from a passing carriage; escapes from the sort of people who would ensure that she was not around to tell the tale the next morning. Being very close by and hearing her cries of distress, Dodger comes to the rescue and drives her captors away. Not being sure what to do now, he is relieved when another carriage stops a few moments later and two gentlemen alight and offer their assistance to the victim. Mr. Henry Mayhew takes her to his home, where his wife will look after her until she recovers from her ordeal, and Mr. Charlie Dickens thanks Dodger and befriends him.
Having seen that the young lady, whom the Mayhews have decided for the moment to name Simplicity, is well cared for, Dodger returns home, to the room in the rookeries of Seven Dials where he 'lodges' with Solomon Cohen. The later is an older man who earns his living repairing watches and making other small but fine items and who has a long and interesting history (of which we get only hints). Solomon, we learn, has travelled much of the world though often left various parts of it rather hurriedly - being Jewish in times of political unrest means that you learn when to leave and to do so fast. He is well thought of at the synagogue and, while he generally appears to be rather down and shoddy, when circumstances call for it he can dress for any occasion society throws at him. It also transpires that, when dealing with the higher echelons of society, he has a handy handshake which gets him respectful acknowledgement and welcome anywhere. He had 'adopted' Dodger a while earlier when the lad saved him from a robbery and saw then that he was basically a good lad and had the potential to be much more than a tosher - but that he would need guidance to better himself. Throughout the story Solomon gently and deliberately provides that guidance.
After some quiet enquiries, it is discovered that Simplicity is the wife of the son of a German aristocrat and she has run away. The marriage, which was for 'love', was not blessed by the father who would have much preferred that his son marry someone whereby advantage, either political or financial (preferably both), could be had. Since discovering his son’s 'error', it transpires that the priest who had performed the ceremony has strangely fallen off the roof of his church, the two peasants who were the official witnesses are equally dead, and hopefully the new wife will soon be joining them. This presents Dodger and his friends with a dilemma; morally they need to protect Simplicity yet politically they need to cooperate with the German authorities. To add to the mix, the up and coming Benjamin Disraeli becomes involved, as does Sir Robert Peel. Oh yes, and Dodger has fallen in love with the lass. And if anyone is to save her, it looks like it will have to be Dodger - but how will he achieve what the others cannot? Meanwhile, he is fast rising from a life in the sewers to mixing with the very best, including an invitation to Buckingham Place. (I think I mentioned this was a tale of rags to riches.)
And there, basically, you have the story. As such, it does not need to be four hundred pages long, nor three hundred; indeed, two hundred is more than enough for such a simple story. Yet the book does not drag for the story is merely the vehicle for detailing the day to day events, happenings, and society that made up life in the London of those days. It is full of history and historical insights yet is not flat or boring - it is written with the insight and humour that typifies Terry’s works. Personally I found that the detailed day-to-day-ness became a touch repetitive a couple of times and perhaps the careful editing out of maybe fifty or so pages might have tightened up the tale for me, but it never stalled.
Although the story makes use of real people as characters, they are used purely fictionally. Certain liberties have been taken with the timeline of history, and other fictional characters such as Sweeny Todd have been added to the mix, but this is, of course, a work of fiction. However, the sort of people who appear in the story and the lives they lead do represent the times as they were. Dodger might be fictional but toshers were real, and we should be thankful that generally we live much better and more privileged lives than most folks did in those days. If one has to learn a little history, this book is a light and most enjoyable way to do so.
Incidentally, Terry has now produced Dodger’s Guide To London, an informative little book that purports to be written by Dodger himself and tells you about the London of his time, as he sees it. It is by no means necessary to read this as well, but it makes a good companion to the novel.
Aee also Ian's review of Dodger.
Dodger has been cited by a number of the SF2 Concatenation team as one of the best science fiction books of 2012.
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