So, Dodger is a heartsong book for me. I realize it’s not perfect — certainly not with regard to accuracy, which we’ll get to in a moment — but it is almost perfectly put together, and is certainly enough of an exemplar of voice, style and thematic development that I hope the 2013 RealCommittee will take a serious look (or maybe a second look) at it. In view of all the great titles before us, I would be surprised to see it take the gold, but you’d have to be a real nasty geezer, to borrow a term from Dodger himself, to snipe at any accolades thrown Sir Terry’s way.
Dodger is, roughly, about life in several different social strata of Victorian London: the desperately poor (no national social safety net here!), the comfortably-off, and the fabulously wealthy. It’s also about heroism, truth, friendship, love, and new beginnings, all wrapped up in a slightly too-tidy bow.
The action begins with a rescue: Dodger, a young tosher (a kid who sifts through the muck of London’s sewers to find coins and other valuables) helps a young woman escape a terrible beating (and the threat of worse) in the midst of a torrential downpour. The anonymous young woman, who eventually begins calling herself Simplicity, is at the heart of a geopolitical intrigue involving European heads of state (and honestly, this was the least effective part of the story — why name names when it comes to Charles Dickens but not some random Austro-Hungarian prince?). While Simplicity recovers at the home of Dickens’ friend Henry Mayhew (who, the author’s acknowledgements inform us, was a sociological statistician, sort of a Nate Silver of the 19th century downtrodden), she and Dodger fall in love and he plans a life for the two of them, far from the dangers of London. A lot of the fun of this book is in recognizing the historical figures, spotting the literary references, and keeping your fingers crossed as Dodger plots and schemes his way to a better life than the one he’s always lived.
I chose Dodger as my Pyrite nomination due largely to the third person narrative voice, which is a masterful blend of restrained, formal and cheeky. When I was on the RealCommittee, I found it useful to look at very different books alongside each other (comparing them, but not really, because: rules) to think about choices the authors made with regard to different aspects of their stories. There are so many passages here — some paragraphs-long, some throwaway lines — that felt effortless and natural but must have been the result of careful editing and rewrites. You want some examples? Who am I to refuse?
In the immediate aftermath of Dodger managing, in what’s nearly a fugue state, to disarm Sweeney Todd (who is here a figure of even greater pathos than in his eponymous musical):
After that, the world went mad, or at least more mad than it had been before. Dodger was surrounded by people, and the little shop was lousy with peelers, brushing past him to the back of the shop, and then he could hear the rattle of a lock, the thud of a boot and, in the distance, some terrible swearing. A gust of corruption of graveyard proportions swept through the shop to cries from the crowd, leaving Dodger suddenly feeling rather queasy and, for some reason, a bit annoyed that he hadn’t had his haircut. (p.131)
When Dodger and Solomon present themselves at the swanky bank:
The following morning, the man whose job it was to open the doors of Coutts bank to the customers found himself looking at an elderly Jewish gentleman in a ragged gabardine coat, whose eyes gleamed with mercantile zeal. This apparition pushed past him, followed by a young man in an ill-fitting suit and a nasty-smelling dog. (p.193)
In an unexpected conversation:
He was looking around for Solomon when somebody else tapped him on the shoulder and said very politely, “I’m very sorry to intervene, but I hear that you habitually frequent the sewerage system.” (p.248)
The detachment of third person narration allows Pratchett to explore the worst aspects of life in early Victorian London — the violence and stench, especially — repeatedly, and with a certain wryness and humor, without it being way too much. As Joy pointed out about Titanic in an earlier post, this is prose that goes down very smooth. I also appreciated Pratchett’s development of themes here — the slippery nature of truth and heroism, in particular, are addressed well (perhaps a little too on-the-nose for adult readers, but probably just-right for many teens).
So after all this love-festing, what could hold this well-constructed and very satisfying read back? Bear in mind, I’m not thinking of Dodger as a strong contender for the gold, but I think it’s well worth considering for the silver. The key problems are the over-the-top political intrigue shenanigans, the implausibility of Dodger’s escape plan working out, and the fact that this is not really a fantasy novel, but not really historical fiction, either. It’s historical fantasy (but not like Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, which is set in a recognizable but fully-realized alternate universe), which is tricky and makes it really difficult to know which accuracy issues to take seriously and which to brush aside.
Still, there’s something about Dodger that you just can’t ignore: It’s violent and grimy and full of irrepressible hope. What did you all think of it? It’s not in our Pyrite Top 10, but I hope you read it and have thoughts to share!