What The Dickens!
Frontispiece and title page, first edition 1838
Illustration and design by George Cruikshank
And, as it turns out, this sickly child read a lot and wrote a lot.
Way back then, I lived in the wild, wild west on the front range of Colorado. Colorado Springs was small then, full of open spaces. The public library was way, way on the other side of town. There were no bookstores. The only library available to me was my school library. I checked out every book I could read. By fourth grade, my favorite authors were already Mark Twain, Jack London, Tolkien’s The Hobbit. And if I wanted to have my very own copy of a book, so I didn’t have to return it, I copied the book.
One of the first and favorite books I copied was Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. You may remember, Charles Dickens wrote the story in part to expose the hypocrisy and cruel treatment of orphans in mid-19th century London. Dickens blended a grim realism with satire to describe the effects of industrialization, creating a story of an innocent child trapped in a life with no hope. What better story to entertain a sickly child!
He introduces his character by assigning an impersonal pronoun to the character, one without identity, calling the babe ‘it’, predicting its doom:
“For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country…” - Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
But the baby survived, earning the right to life as well as a name, Oliver:
“... There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.” – Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Little did I know that it was a good thing, to write by hand. Scientists now know that cursive writing is an important tool for cognitive development. It teaches the brain to be efficient, helps to develop critical thinking skills and refines motor control. In fact, children who learn cursive tend to learn how to read faster, generate more ideas and retain more information. When I was copying Oliver Twist in the fourth grade, I paid more attention to the details of the story. I experienced the characters on a deeper level because the very act of writing them out engaged all my senses. I had to pay attention to the words, how they were ordered, and how they were used. And, of course, I experienced the linear logic of the plot.
George Cruikshank original engraving of the Artful Dodger (centre), here introducing Oliver (right) to Fagin (left)
One of my favorite characters in Oliver Twist was Jack Dawkins, otherwise known as the Artful Dodger. The snub-nosed, flat-browed, common faced pickpocket and leader of the gang of child criminals. He was not without heart, however.
It is the nature of reading that every story we’ve read stays with us, and its characters become a part of our lives. We are the product of all the stories read and lived. Even as we become characters in each other’s story. These stories settle within us, blend with our experiences – for why else could we become so attached to these characters, unless we see them as friends– and work their magic on us. They engage, and encourage, and guide.
And, when we least expect it, especially as one becomes a writer, such persistent characters ooze to the surface in some form found in our own works. Many light years down the road, when I read about the history of San Francisco, about the plight of the poor and that gallery of characters that walked those cobbled streets along the Barbary Coast, it was no accident that I envisioned Oliver Twist meets the wild, wild west.
My character became Jack London, in honor of my old friends, and not by coincidence:
“Jack of all trades, Lady Jane had called her. Pickpocket, escape artist, and a bold little rascal. A kid after her own heart, said Lady Jane. Lady Jane named Jack after one of her favorite towns, London. Jack London, that was her name. And this den was her home.
“She was by everyone’s accounts ordinary. Not small, not tall, not too thin. Not so clever as some but not near as dull as others. All except for her eyes. They were a pale, bright blue. They seemed like ghost eyes. Old sailors said she had the evil eye, saying she brought nothing but bad luck to everyone she knew. Get away with those buggery eyes, they warn her, or they’d take a switch to her backside.
“Despite being so common, she carried herself with the dash of one standing six feet tall. She wore a man’s coat over her tattered dress, one that nearly touched her boot heels. She had turned the cuffs back so she could use her hands, and stuff them comfortably into the large pockets.”
Still a work in progress, Jack London has yet to find a home. As she skips away, down the road, tipping her bowler, she sings out to me, “ Once a villain, you’re a villain to the end!”
And I call out: “And you, Jack London, you’re my friend! To the end!”
What favorite reads did you have as a child? How did they influence your life?
-- Bobbi Miller