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The Dickens Boy


The Dickens Boy

I suppose that one can’t be too hard on Edward “Plorn” Dickens. Setting aside the ridiculous nickname, there are the basic facts of his biography --- born the youngest son of Charles Dickens, suffered through Victorian schooling, shipped off at the tender age of 15 to Australia to learn the trade of sheep husbandry in the remote barrens of New South Wales. So, all right, there’s that.

Young Mr. Dickens, we come to realize, is a pioneer in more ways than one. He has to carry on the burden of a famous name in an era when such a thing was uncommon. Charles Dickens was a stupendously famous person at a time when there were simply not that many famous people. Sure, there were aristocrats, kings and admirals. But the concept of someone of ordinary, average birth becoming staggeringly famous because of artistic merit --- what we would now call a celebrity --- was very new at the time. And Dickens had the sort of status for which modern-day celebrities would trade their grandparents.

"You would think there would not be that much material here for a novel, but Keneally adds in just enough drama, local color and artful turns of phrase to keep the pages turning."

THE DICKENS BOY is a qualified triumph for its author, Thomas Keneally. By “qualified” I mean making the most of a character who, outside of his famous parentage, is a nonentity. Plorn is not especially talented, accomplished or even interesting. His story is a very typical coming-of-age tale, albeit set in the colorful Australian wilderness. You would think there would not be that much material here for a novel, but Keneally adds in just enough drama, local color and artful turns of phrase to keep the pages turning.

The difficulty that Keneally sets for himself here is the same difficulty that his character faces. Every single person he meets (outside of his elder brother and, of course, the Aboriginals) has opinions about his father. Some of them are negative, of course, but on every fifth page or so, the narrative stops cold and we meet a new character who is such a huge fan of MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT or what have you. They have to explain this and express their delight that the scion of the great man has found his way to the Antipodes. Plorn has to deal with this over and over again. He (mostly) keeps his good humor about him and manages to be far less irritated by the whole thing than readers would ever be.

It should go without saying that those who have a good grasp of Dickens will enjoy THE DICKENS BOY far more than others. Those of us who have forgotten what little we have read will be forgiven for missing most of the references. I, for one, had very little idea of what Dickens’ home life was actually like --- a shortcoming that the novel remedies in spades.

Keneally cuts the story short while Plorn is still a young man. Wikipedia provides the details --- he married, stayed in Australia, served in its assembly, and died without ever achieving anything that one would call literary merit. THE DICKENS BOY is his monument, and it is a worthy one.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on March 18, 2022

The Dickens Boy
by Thomas Keneally

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 198216915X
  • ISBN-13: 9781982169152