Friday, September 2, 2011

"He was called Smith and was twelve years old."

Months ago, I ordered a book from Powell's (I think it might have been Tom's Midnight Garden) and the site suggested I also buy Smith by Leon Garfield. They had a copy for $2.95 (it's still got the tag so that's how I know) and it sounded like my sort of thing even though I had never heard of it or the author. It also had this cool cover by Brett Helquist (whose art you may recognize from the Series of Unfortunate Events books) so I went for it. Then I let it sit around for a while until I grabbed it this summer and was transported to a Victorian world every bit as vivid and heartwarming and tragic as any Dickens.

It's been a couple of months since I read the book so I'm going to pull the summary from the Powell's site --
This brilliant, picaresque novel follows the adventures of an illiterate young ragamuffin known only as Smith. Smith picks the pocket of a stranger, only to witness immediately the strangers murder. Smith's booty from the theft is an Important Document, no doubt worth quite a lot to somebody, which is proved by the pursuit of Smith by two very shady characters. Smith artfully dodges them and winds up in the odd company of a wealthy blind man, who takes Smith into his home and provides him with an education. But this new comfort is lost when Smith himself is suspected of the very murder he witnessed. Smith was a Boston Globe--Horn Book Honor Book, winner of the Phoenix Award, and a Carnegie Honor Book.
If I had to give Smith one of those strange mash-up tags I would say it's "a YA version of Dickens with all the tragedy and redemption of Jane Eyre". What it really reminds me of is Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, which I loved but which also broke my heart along the way. The nice thing is that this is a book for younger readers and so it has a happy ending. The way it takes to that ending, though, is full of servants, highwaymen and dangerous figures hidden in dark alleys. I was so in love with it that I recently bought another of Garfield's books, Black Jack. Sadly, many of his books are out of print (this one was written in 1967) and so I'm going to have to do some work to find them. I think it will be well worth the effort.

New to me is new enough,


  1. I guess I need to start reading kids and YA again.
    Too much fun to miss out on!

  2. Never heard of it, but the cover by Brett Helquist immediately caught my eye. Thanks for flagging!

  3. "a YA version of Dickens with all the tragedy and redemption of Jane Eyre"?

    Well, you just sold me! I have to get this, like, now. :)

  4. Al - Well, since this was written in 1967, you can pretend that you read it as a kid. ;)

    Alex - The other one I bought has a Helquist cover too. I'm hoping I can find others because they're kind of awesome!

    Heather - I was so incredibly surprised by how good this book was. I hope you find it!