Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket
Twelve-year-old Smith lives in 18th-century London with his two older sisters, who earn a living by altering and selling the clothes of the recently hanged. Smith adds to their income by picking pockets. The story begins with Smith following a country gentleman, robbing him, and then watching that man get killed. The murderers search the dead man’s pockets only to discover that what they sought is not there. Smith realizes that he has stolen a document of great value, but he cannot read it and cannot trust anyone who can read. Deciding he must learn to read, he hunts for a teacher. He is rejected by a priest, a jailor, several inmates, and is finally taken in by a blind magistrate (because justice is blind) and taught by the magistrate’s adult daughter. To keep the story exciting, the murderers discover Smith has the document, and Smith must use his wits and swift feet to stay alive.
First published in 1967, Garfield’s story feels like a classic Dickens novel rather than a piece of historical fiction mirroring Dickens. The setting is clearly 18th-century London, but the narrative shows it without over-description. I’m not sure how well that works for children who aren’t already familiar with the setting, but I found it wonderfully simple. The story is fast-paced and exciting, Smith moving from one adventure to the next. The characters are well-drawn, the good-hearted and the blackened souls being mixed among the classes. Smith is a rollicking fun story with a moral that is clear but isn’t laid on too thickly.