The Dickens Boy

Written by Thomas Keneally
Review by Larry Zuckerman

In 1868, Edward Dickens, the tenth, ne’er-do-well child of the famous author, emigrates to Australia at age sixteen to learn the sheep business. Talk about great expectations and a name he can’t live up to: Everyone he meets seems to have memorized his father’s works and supposes he’s done the same, when, in fact, he’s never read a word.

From this ingenious premise, Keneally spins a delightful, often hilarious, wide-ranging coming-of-age novel. You have the usual themes, such as sexual awakening, learning to adjust abstract morals to real-life circumstances, and how to judge another person in his or her fullness, allowing for imperfections. To that, add what it means to be a family outcast in a country settled by outcasts.

Young Dickens adapts rapidly, perhaps conveniently, but you have to admire his insistence that he has none of his father’s gifts, which stands in for the wish to be taken as his own man. He has doubts about who that man is, but he derives warmth and satisfaction from people saluting his individuality—welcome to the democracy of the outback. Even when the story turns harsh, even murderous, kindness isn’t far away. That’s another theme, whether humans are innately evil with occasional good impulses, or good with occasional evil ones.

Keneally celebrates the frontier ethic, in which a person’s deeds and capabilities often, but not always, matter more than his or her birth. As such, you can pretty much tell the good guys from the bad guys without a scorecard, and they seldom do anything to challenge the judgment; perhaps that’s Dickensian too. However, laughter levels that broad-brush approach, with a theatrical tone that Dickens himself might have admired.

A few characters could have stood more nuance, but this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Highly recommended.