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Review: The Dickens Boy, by Thomas Keneally
Atria, 2021. 399 pp. $28

In 1868, Edward Dickens, the tenth child of the famous author, emigrates to Australia to learn the sheep business. Just shy of his seventeenth birthday, he arrives with far more psychological baggage than physical possessions. Besides the name he can’t possibly live up to, which prompts everyone he meets to draw faulty conclusions about him, he has failed to apply himself at everything he’s ever attempted, save cricket. As he is all too aware, he doesn’t appear promising material. He also bears the cultural, social, and religious prejudices you’d expect of a righteous Victorian, some of which may work against him in the outback.

Edward Dickens, in an 1868 portrait, photographer unknown (courtesy
http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/distant-paradise-dickens, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But young Plorn, as the family calls him — an abbreviation of an immense nickname — has two advantages. He desires to learn and will take instruction from anyone; and he has his older brother, Alfred, who has preceded him to Australia. That Alfred is named for Tennyson, and Plorn, for Edward Bulwer Lytton (who wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night”), hints at the burden they carry. But for Plorn, it’s even worse, because the entire continent seems composed of people who have memorized his father’s works and suppose he has done the same, when, in fact, he has never read a word of them.

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 moral sense to real-life circumstances, and how to judge another person in his or her fullness, allowing for their imperfections. To that, add what it means to be a family outcast in a country colonized by outcasts. Plorn is convinced that Father sent him away out of love, but Alfred is less sure, and their differing points of view about that, and their father’s character, cause conflict. This issue occupies Plorn throughout the novel.

Plorn may adapt rather rapidly, perhaps conveniently, but you have to admire how he lets his insistence that he has none of his father’s gifts stand for the wish to be taken as his own man. Inwardly, 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. He also has enough sense to avoid employers to whom he has an introduction and seek someone more to his liking, at which he succeeds admirably.

Fred Bonney, who manages a sheep station with intelligent tolerance, teaches young Plorn all he needs to know about sheep ranching and encourages his rise. A better mentor would be hard to find, and if Fred happens to be the one rancher who tries to understand and befriend the Indigenous people (though unapologetic about having taken their land), consider that a lucky Dickensian coincidence. But Keneally makes the most of it, and even when the story turns harsh, even murderous, kindness isn’t far away. That too is a theme, whether humans are innately evil with occasional good impulses, or good with occasional evil ones.

Keneally wishes to celebrate 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.

Naturally, a girl figures in the story, and though I wish the adjective pretty did not introduce her every appearance, I like how Keneally portrays Plorn’s sexual confusion:

All apart from the native women were males in this enormous acreage, and that suited me fairly well at nearly seventeen, when the idea of a future beloved, a woman of vapor, had certainly arisen in me but with no urgency to see her in the flesh. I had decided that women in the flesh were a challenge to the callow, whether they represented an uncomplaining wistfulness like Mama, a sturdy and overriding competence like Aunt Georgie, or a jovial irreverence like my clever sister Kate. Papa had nicknamed Katie ‘Lucifer Box’ for her capacity to flare, but she had married Wilkie Collins’s sickly brother, Charlie, a fellow who seemed to have no fire at all.

You can sort of see why Plorn has never read his father’s novels, given that so many literary icons populated his youth.

The Dickens Boy is a thoroughly enjoyable novel. I would have wanted more variation within some of the characters to match the way the author poses moral problems, as shades of gray. But it’s a wonderful book nonetheless.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in different, shorter form.