Sunday, 6 September 2020

The Dickens Boy, by Tom Keneally.

         In 1868, the author Charles Dickens is beloved by the world.  His books hold the English-speaking world in thrall, and each new publication, many of which started  life in episode form, is awaited with breathless anticipation:  he is a sorely-needed literary god, not least in Australia, that raw, new colony peopled by gentlemen, remittance men – and convicts, sent there for ‘The Term of their Natural Lives’.  Imagine the delight, the honour that people feel to know that the Great Man has decided to send two of his sons to New South Wales, ostensibly to Make Men of Them. 
            Fair enough.  Twenty-five year old Alfred is the first to be sent to make his mark as a gentleman drover, but Edward, youngest of the ten Dickens children (nicknamed Plorn, and as a child baptised by his father as ‘the jolliest boy in the world) is just sixteen when he makes the three-month ocean journey.  He is sent to work in the Outback because his illustrious Pa doesn’t think Plorn is ‘applying himself’ – which may be true:  Plorn is not known for academic brilliance, nor has he read a single one of his father’s novels, a secret he keeps with utmost guilt.  His only talent is cricket:  he’s a very useful all-rounder!
            Revered Australian author Tom Keneally tells Plorn’s story with great empathy of the completely different lifestyle he must accustom himself to, from food (mutton, damper and black tea for most meals) rough-and-ready colleagues (some of them shifty indeed) to the utter vastness of the landscape and the varieties of sheep that the drovers manage.  Words like ‘flock’ don’t apply here where sheep number in the hundreds of thousands – a ‘mob’ of sheep is more appropriate;  likewise the incongruity of calling boundary fences ‘paddocks’, which must be patrolled even though each paddock may stretch for fifty miles.  She’s a Big Country alright, but even more exotic and alien to Plorn are the Aborigines, some of whom work with him and are protected by his Boss.  He is fascinated by them, intrigued by their customs and agog at their equestrian skills – yes, Plorn, that homesick boy longing for England and his beloved family, believes he has truly found his niche:  he is ‘applying himself’, and hopes Pa will approve.
            Mr Keneally has recreated brilliantly Charles Dickens’s literary and family life, including his cruel treatment of Catherine, mother of his ten children, and his continuing affair with actress Ellen Ternan :  only a  master novelist could reimagine Plorn and Alfred’s  consternation at the liaison, revealed publicly at Dickens’s tragic death in 1870, but Tom Keneally has recounted Plorn’s small triumphs  and great tragedies most fittingly:  Plorn the Dickens Boy has applied himself well!  FIVE STARS.    

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