By Leon Garfield
Available now from NYR Children's Collection
I'll read almost anything from NYRB; they're a terrific publisher. Not too much of a surprise considering they mostly cherry-pick backlists. The latest release in their children's collection is SMITH: THE STORY OF A PICKPOCKET, a Carnegie Medal Honor book. Originally published in 1967, it is set back in the eighteenth century.
It's a little like Dickens for kids, except unlike A CHRISTMAS CAROL it isn't totally boring. (I love Dickens, but A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a total slog.) Smith is young, dirty, and stealing to survive. He lives with his two sisters, who make money sewing hanged men's clothing into new suits. Given that they live in a poor area, they're often sewing the clothes of old friends. Then, one day, Smith picks a man's pocket. Shortly after, he witnesses the man being murdered for his possessions. Smith has a document that two thugs want, and one big problem. He can't read. He has something worth something, finally, but he doesn't know what it is.
SMITH is a charming novel where goodness is rewarded and evil punished, but it takes a lot of work and effort to reach the happy ending. Smith's life is rough, and there is no magical way to make it better. He runs into a kindly, blind magistrate and his daughter who are a great help, but they cannot save Smith alone. Plus, Smith isn't blameless. He lies, and steals, and he has to learn empathy if he's going to be the good guy.
Leon Garfield does an excellent job at evoking the period. Well enough that SMITH is probably best saved for children who can have conversations about capital punishment, because there is a lot of execution going on. Other conversations about the period would probably be less fraught. And hey, this is a book where literacy is a matter of life and death. That's pretty cool.
I enjoyed SMITH quite a bit, and think this is one of those children's books that has strong appeal for adults. C'mon, it's about a thief who is friends with a highwayman and there are relentless henchman! It's a pulpy adventure, told in classic style. I may have to look up some of the rest of Garfield's extensive backlist.