There are a lot of books that intimidate me. Most of them make sense: War & Peace; Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; Little, Big; The Name of the Wind; Ulysses; The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man; Pale Fire; the Lord of the Rings trilogy; anything by David Foster Wallace. Some are giant, hulking tomes, others are notoriously dense, highbrow works, or they’re considered to be the text that defined a genre. I want to read them – I do! (well, maybe not the Tolkien)- but I put them off and put them off, because each text seems like such a big commitment. I’ll get there, someday, I swear. I even own some of them, and they stare at me judgmentally on a daily basis. One of these days I’m gonna pluck ’em off the shelf and stare at their insides the way they stare at mine. Today’s just not the day. You understand, I’m sure. I’m willing to bet that you’ve got your own list.
Then, there are books that intimidate me for reasons that nobody can understand. I hardly understand myself. Dodger was one such book.
Author: Terry Pratchett
Genre: YA (Historical Fantasy)
Publication Date: September 25, 2012
Hardcover: 368 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: No. Just a smelly dog.
Seventeen-year-old Dodger is content as a sewer scavenger. But he enters a new world when he rescues a young girl from a beating, and her fate impacts some of the most powerful people in England.
From Dodger’s encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd, to his meetings with the great writer Charles Dickens and the calculating politician Benjamin Disraeli, history and fantasy intertwine in a breathtaking account of adventure and mystery. – Amazon.com
Dodger hasn’t always intimidated me. I didn’t even know that it existed, actually, until it passed by my eyes while I was working at the Library’s circulation desk one day last week. But in that first moment after I saw it, I thought simultaneously “Oh, this looks good!” and “Shit. I can’t read this!” There were several, crummy reasons for my apprehension.
1) I don’t know enough about the Victorian era.
2) I don’t know enough about Charles Dickens.
3) I don’t know enough about Terry Pratchett.
Here’s why they were crummy:
1) Reading a book (fiction or non) is a great way to learn more about something you know very little about. I need to let go of this hang-up (one of the reasons that I tend to bypass historical fiction – especially European historical fiction), and realize that there’s always going to be a certain amount of explanation, backstory, and context given. Otherwise, the author effectively limits his or her audience. They can’t just assume their readers know everything already. (Although, there were certain jokes that I only got because I know the titles of Dickens’ works. I’m sure there were many more jokes that I missed, and that makes me a little sad).
2) The book’s intended for teens. I’m way closer to being 30 than I am to being a teenager. And what’s more, age and linear time are human constructs, anyway. I’m no age (and every age), which is to say, I shouldn’t be scared of a Young Adult book. I should thumb my nose at it, or at the very least (since I don’t have opposable digits), indulge in it heedlessly while wiggling my nose.
Despite my misgivings, I took Dodger home with me for one reason that trumped all the others. I wanted to know if I like Terry Pratchett, and Dodger is a stand-alone book. The thought of reading it was less intimidating than the thought of jumping into his Discworld series (which will have no less than 40 books come October). It was like choosing between facing down one grizzly bear or 40 grizzly bears. Except in this case the grizzlies were more likely to make a joke about masturbation by way of a Biblical allusion than they were to eat you alive. Obviously, you take the single (self-loving) bear.
I was eager to discover my feelings toward Terry Pratchett due to my intense love of Neil Gaiman. The two authors worked together to create Good Omens, a cult classic, which I tried to read recently and couldn’t get into. I deduced that it must’ve been Prachett’s fault, since I’ve never before had anything but a total fangirl’s over-the-top, bordering on creepy, obsessive, fanatical passion for Gaiman’s work (Call me, Neil!). But everyone insists that Prachett’s incredible, so I wanted to give him another chance (with an eye towards convincing myself to revisit Good Omens in the future, if I found that I didn’t hate him).
I didn’t hate him.
And what’s better, I stumbled upon a “good omen” of my own while hopping to the park to read one day, Pratchett’s book upon my back in my little bunny pack. It was a message scrawled into the cement, on the very street I live on, no less.
Sometimes, we see things when we’re meant to.
What Made the Story Totally Worth Eating:
1. The girl.
Finally, a character who qualifies for the Feminist Reads Challenge! We may meet her as she’s being rescued by a boy, but this girl’s no mere damsel-in-distress. Despite living in the 1800s, she refuses to go back to an abusive husband, refuses to accept a life where she’s labeled as someone’s “property”, doesn’t balk at dressing in men’s clothing, and cleverly renames herself, playing off of a very silly name that others have chosen for her, thereby creating her own identity. And even though Dodger saved her (which she graciously accepts and thanks him for, the ability to accept help when it’s offered being a kind of strength unto itself), she still put up a fight on the night of said heroics. One of the henchmen, explaining to his boss how he lost the precious cargo, says, “Well sir, we expected a girl, but that lady had a punch on her that knocked out one of my boys. And one of them’s been in the ring, sir! She was fast and clever, sir, fighting like anything… They say there never was a girl like that who kicked and spat and punched like a good ‘un…She kicked the door [of the coach] out and jumped off in the middle of that terrible thunderstorm” (112). She bravely confronts the men who mean her harm, as well as the elements, and fearlessly throws herself from a moving vehicle! Not to mention that she can speak several different languages, knows how to read, and brings literacy to others. Unfortunately, who she is, exactly, remains a mystery for the bulk of the book, so I can’t say too much more. However, it’s important to note that she’s not the only admirable member of my gender in the text. Pratchett also includes Angela Burdett-Coutts as a character, who’s even more incredible…which is funny because she’s very credible. Angela Burdett-Coutts – baroness and philanthropist – really, truly, and historically lived in Victorian London. And she really did some of the things included in the novel, like establishing Urania Cottage (a refuge for down and out women) and the Ragged Schools (which provided quality education to destitute youth). Plus, she was a dog lover (she campaigned pretty hard for doggy fountains in the parks), was smokin’ hot, and her initials were “ABC.”
No one’s ever accused me of being an Anglophile (and likely no one ever will), but I thought some of the English expressions Pratchett used were great. My all-time favorite was “firkytoodle,” and that was before I even looked it up! Dodger says, “I don’t firkytoodle around!” I assumed he meant, “I don’t mess around,”or “I take care of business”… which he did. But when I did some minor research, I found that “firkytoodle” can be used for all of the various incarnations that “fuck” covers, i.e., “We were up drinking, swearing, and firkytoodling all night long.” For all the terms I’ve heard in America for making sweet love, not one of them has amused me quite so much as this British one. I might be willing to make the concession that Brits do this one thing (naughty slang) better than Yanks. But even then, it’s probably just the novelty that makes it so good. (What are some of your favorite phrases for “firkytoodling,” American or otherwise? And if there are any English readers, is “firkytoodle” a common expression? Was it part of your known vocabulary?).
I also really liked another of Pratchett’s phrases – however, when I looked it up, I found that it wasn’t even British. It’s American, chiefly, just unbeknownst to me! When thinking of the men who hurt his mystery girl, Dodger resolves, “He would find them, he surely would, and see the bastards in lavender” (18). I guessed “in lavender” meant something like “six feet under,” and it did have something to do with death, but it was pre-burial. “In lavender” refers to the early practice of covering a corpse in lavender in order to keep it fresh and mask the smell. Delightful! I love expanding my vocabulary!
3.The keen, often hilarious observations about society.
Pratchett writes about class-discrimination, showing how people treat Dodger (riff-raff) and Charles Dickens (upper-crust) differently:
“The man gave Dodger a cursory glance that had quite a lot of curse in it and then looked up at Charlie, who got the kind of smile that you get when people know you have money” (13).
He also perfectly captures the atmosphere in coffee shops, when Dodger & Charles Dickens go to one in order to have a covert conversation. “Charlie” brushes off Dodger’s concerns over talking about a private matter in public, explaining:
“Nobody is going to hear what you say here, because in here everybody is always talking at once, and the ones who aren’t talking are thinking about what they are going to say next and waiting for their turn” (66).
Pratchett comments upon crime and mental illness, when he allows Dodger to respond to Sweeney Todd, who was changed after witnessing the atrocities of war, in a sympathetic manner. When Dodger comes out of an exchange with Todd looking like a hero, Charlie advises:
“It’s not your fault if people call you a hero, but it is to your credit that you recognize that if he was a monster, then it was other monstrous things that made him so” (182).
And Dodger notes, “He wasn’t bad, he was mad, and sad, and lost in his ‘ead” (135).
I also love the view of life and politics that comes to light in a conversation between Dodger and his father figure, Solomon. In this interaction, Dodger asks and Solomon answers:
“Am I downtrodden?
Not so you would notice, my boy, and neither do you tread on anybody else, which is a happy situation to be in, but if I were you I shouldn’t think too much more about politics. It can only make you ill” (205).
There are about a million more smart and pithy ruminations, about the difference between schooling and education (very reminiscent of Mark Twain), and the nature of truth and fiction — but I’ll let you read them for yourselves.
4. The fairytale quality.
Sometimes Dodger was very much like a fairytale, like when the woman Dodger saved utters her very first words to him. Pratchett writes, “The girl croaked rather than spoke, but it was a ladylike croak, such as might be made by a frog princess” (18). Or in very blunt scenery description: “Now the streets looked a little like a fairyland under the honey glow of the evening sun although, it must be said, only a little” (119). But sometimes, the allusions were so subtle that I’m not certain I wasn’t imagining them. I think I could create a fairly strong thesis linking the characters of Solomon and Gepetto. Perhaps the most convincing evidence is a description of Sol at work:
“The old man went back to his workbench with its pedal-powered lathe, and soon there was a homely, busy little noise that would have made Dodger think of grasshoppers in a field, if he had ever seen a grasshopper or, for that matter, a field” (35).
The grasshopper noise that Sol’s tools make is a stand-in for Jiminy Cricket (in the Disney movie) or The Talking Cricket (in Carlo Carloddi’s children’s book, The Adventures of Pinnochio). Solomon and Gepetto are both elderly father figures, and they both turn their children into “real boys,” or in Dodger’s case, a real man. And they have similar professions: Gepetto a carpenter and Solomon a tinkerer/watchmaker. They’re good with their hands. They know how to shape and mold.
There are more fairytale elements but… spoilers.
5. The connection between Charles Dickens and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Hint: It has nothing to do with their beards (I mean, seriously, Leo. What is that?). Or with their ability to look you in the eye. But it’s there. I promise. Were I to expand upon the subject, however, I’d be giving spoilers. Suffice it to say that Leo’s played Romeo, Jay Gatsby, and a role doubtlessly inspired by a Dickens character. Who knew he was so literary?
What I Spit Back Out:
1. The flow.
This isn’t something that I know how to explain, and it’s not something that I took notes on; it’s just a general feeling (which I know is a no-no in reviewing and in criticism). But it needs to be said because it contributed to my overall reading experience. Something about Pratchett’s cadence felt off to me – the sentences didn’t tumble and babble along smoothly. His writing didn’t mesh well with my style of speaking or thinking. His commas weren’t where I would’ve put my commas (not that I put mine in appropriate places), and I felt myself pausing and even breathing a bit unnaturally. It felt very foreign, which made it hard for it to live vibrantly inside my head. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some gorgeous sentences, because there were. But it took me awhile to ease in enough to be able to spot them.
2. The recycled jokes.
This is an instance where my worry about not knowing enough about Terry Pratchett was actually legitimate. While reading, I found myself annoyed that little jokes were repeated (like Dodger never fearing that Onan, Sol’s dog, would be stolen if he chained him outside because he smelled too badly for anyone to consider taking). Sometimes, the quips were echoed down to the very word. It was funny the first time, but why use it again?, I wondered. I think I would have felt less irate if I’d known then what I know now. Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer’s. Common symptoms include memory loss and subconscious repetition. I feel like an insensitive, inconsiderate ignoramus for ever having complained. It doesn’t make the redundancy go away, or make the text any better, but it does make it understandable. If I had so little to nit-pick in Pratchett’s writing even after such a blow, that says something. Maybe I’d really like some of his earlier stuff.
So, I guess I will try Good Omens again. Someday. But Dodger didn’t leave me chomping at the
bit carrot. Maybe it’ll happen around roughly the same time that I find myself finally reading Infinite Jest. I’ve been advised to read The Wee Free Men first — though I’ve got reservations about that, too. It’s a Discworld story, and that leads me right back to the 40 grizzlies. But if I’m going to be part of a hairy circle jerk, I guess that’s the one I’d choose. So at least Pratchett accomplished that. Somehow, I think he’d be happy.
Pooka Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Nibbles.