Tuesday, January 15, 2013
History, Fiction and Filth
If fiction and film is at all accurate, the nineteenth century was a filthy time, at least for those without money. Bad plumbing and unfettered coal burning left most people covered in some sort of filth the vast majority of the time. Like Les Miserables, Terry Pratchett's YA novel Dodger is very much about dirty people, though there's not much singing. Dodger is the adopted pseudonym of a young man who's grown up an orphan on the streets and has taken up the less-than-enviable (and somewhat less-than-legal) profession of toshing. "Toshing" is slang for collecting things that fall in the sewer. Dodger spends his days navigating bits of nineteenth century sewer, picking up jewelry, coins and anything else he might be able to use, sell, or return for reward.
But Dodger is more than just poor kid doing a nasty job to survive. He's a "geezer" a leader on the streets whose reputation and connections earn him tremendous fear and respect among the less respectable. It also doesn't hurt that he's not afraid to use violence when necessary.
When one stormy night, emerging from the sewers he comes upon an unknown girl being beaten, he rescues her. His act is witnessed by none other than Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, who are so impressed with him that they hire him to discover who the girl is. Dodger is able to do much that the police and other authorities can't and in the process of his search finds himself achieving fame beyond the streets and sewers, attracting the attention of some of Britain's most powerful politicians.
Pratchett, in an afterword, describes Dodger as historical fantasy rather than historical fiction, but he's fully committed to bringing to life the world of Dickens' London. The prose is peppered with his familiar droll commentary on life and his genuine affection for his characters, all the qualities found in his many "Discworld" fantasy novels. Anyway, if you've read any of the Discworld novels you already know that there's not that much difference between people and goblins, trolls, dwarves, vampires and werewolves. Just look beneath the warts, or fur, or grime. For Pratchett, who has spent his life writing fantasy novels, Dodger doesn't seem like a stretch at all.