by Leon Garfield
The New York Review Children’s Collection
. . . . . . . . .. . . .(illustration free).
Back Cover: Twelve-year-old Smith is a denizen of the mean streets of eighteenth-century London, living hand to mouth by virtue of wit and pluck. One day he trails an old gentleman with a bulging pocket, deftly picks it, and as footsteps ring out from the alley by which he had planned to make his escape, finds himself in a tough spot. Taking refuge in a doorway, he sees two men emerge to murder the man who was his mark. They rifle the dead man’s pockets and finding them empty, depart in a rage. Smith, terrified, flees the scene of the crime. What has he stolen that is worth the life of a man?
Opening: He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel; for it seemed as if the smallpox, the consumption, brain-fever, jail-fever and even the hangman’s rope had given him a wide berth for fear of catching something. Or else they weren’t quick enough.
About the Story: Smith, also known as “Smut,” spends his life on the worst side of London, pickpocketing for his food, drink, and shelter, which he shares with his two sisters. One day he pickpockets a gentleman, who looks out of place in the alley, and gets one coin and a document. The man rounds the corner to meet two men in brown but when they reach for the document and it is missing, is murdered by the other two. Smith witnesses the entire transaction. Back home, his sisters are thrilled thinking of all the riches this one document would bring, though neither could read what it said. Smith could not read the document either and went looking for someone to teach him to read. Everyone, including a minister who took one indignant look at Smith, refused to help him.
One night, Justice Mansfield exits a bar and collides with Smith, knocking both to the ground. Mr. Mansfield can no longer find his way home, so Smith—feeling pity on the blind justice—escorts the man to his front door. They speak of many things on the unusually slow walk. The Justice, touched by Smith’s sincerity, invites him in to share his dinner, offers him a bed for the viciously cold night, and then offers him a job working in the stables. Mr. Mansfield’s daughter—not fond of the any of this—tells Smith he will be required to learn how to read. The Miss is surprised by Smith’s answer, but began the lessons the next day.
Everything was going well for Smith. He was almost done with his reading lessons, the other staff liked him, and his entire world is looking grand. Nevertheless, trouble is brewing. The lawyer courting the daughter accuses Smith of killing the man who originally had the document that night in the alley. In a blink of an eye, Smith’s life collapses. He finds himself in jail, with the accuser now his lawyer. How would he get anyone to listen and believe? The document, which could proof his innocence—of the murder—has since been lost. It looks like Smith will either live his life out in jail or hang by a noose.
What I Thought: Smith is an exciting read. There is not as much crime as the title might suggest, but what there is makes for action-packed scenes. I loved it when Smut takes the document home and none of them can read it, yet the two sisters debate what it is and finally decide it is their ticket to a normal—wealthy—life. This reminded me of the commotion surrounding a large lottery jackpot and all the dreaming each purchased ticket brings. The only difference being, the two sisters, and to some extent Smut, believe the document will bring them fortune and a changed life for the better, while lottery players seem to understand their chances are steep. The siblings have no idea what the document is, nor does the reader, until close to the end.
Smith is determined to make a better life for himself, so he takes the legit job from his new friend. Then everything falls apart. Smith is most hurt that his new friend, who he has come to admire and trust, suddenly, without warning or a discussion, believes the lawyer, and orders Smith arrested and jailed immediately. The justice is equally hurt that Smith would lie to him when they discussed the murder. (Smith said he was not there.) As the story progresses, Smith’s humanity is slowly revealed.
I really liked reading Smith. The story is fast-paced, has a bit of humor, and wonderful, fully developed characters. The story showcases life in London during the eighteenth century, especially its rough, inhumane penal system and life on the street for the poor. With Smith accused of murder, the house and stable staff who came to love him lose their trust in Smith and in humanity as a whole, which is a common theme among the Londoners. The mansion had become a beacon of light until Smith’s accuser shattered it all. Hurt feelings are everywhere in the mansion that day, except for one treacherous character. Things do straighten out by stories end in ways I had not foreseen.
Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket is a classic middle grade novel but one that is best suited for advanced readers. Though the violence is minimal, kids at the lower edge of this age group may not be ready to handle the dark themes and stark feelings of its characters. But when ready, these kids will enjoy the story of the unfortunate pickpocket, who choose the wrong mark, and changes his life and those closest to him, forever.
1987 Phoenix Award
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Released October 15, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-59017-675-7 (HC) 978-1-59017-710-5 (E)
Age: 9 – 12
© 2013 by The New York Review Children’s Collection
an imprint of The New York Review
Text copyright © 2013/1995/1965 by Leon Garfield