Hard Luck Boys: Oliver Twist (1839) and The Butcher Boy (1992)

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I read these books in sequence, not intentionally, but they made an interesting juxtaposition. Oliver Twist was new to me—I’ve been working through the Dickens novels all year—but The Butcher Boy was a re-read. As Dickens goes, Oliver was not one of my favorites. The initial escapes and ordeals held my attention, but as they repeated, my patience flagged. Not again? Dickens was writing a serial, so dangers and reversals at every turn kept his readers on the hook, week by week.

My other problem was with the beatific goodness of Oliver himself and his role as Victim. He never stood up for himself, planned escapes or fought back; nothing affected him for better or worse. I felt sorry for the kid, but I didn’t like him. Dickens had latched onto the growing notion of his times that childhood was a special province of innocence and purity that needed protection, not simply a stage in which future adults were shorter in size and skill. Oliver is the embodiment of this glowing ideal. I’m not sure how true Oliver reads to modern eyes; I’m sufficiently jaded to think him unreal. The child that lit up the book, however, was the Artful Dodger. Corrupted young, he still had the pluck, energy and enthusiasms of youth, qualities the vulnerable Oliver notable lacked. Someone protect the sweet thing! The text seemed to lament. I’d rather have more of the resourceful Dodger any day.

Which brings us to self-styled man of adventure, Francie Brady. Fueled by comic book heroes, movie idols and the family stories of his romantic (if failed) parents, Francie thinks he’s moving through a simple boy’s tale, but then, he thinks a lot of things that aren’t quite so. Like Oliver, he’s a victim, but of a very different kind of neglect, but unlike Oliver, Francie reacts. He’s frightened, angry and extreme, but even something as ordinary as running away from home, has devastating consequences. Both of these boys live lives of uncommon hardship. Oliver, in spite of all, remains serenely innocent and good. So does Francie Brady, to a degree. Innocent, he is, perhaps, protected by his crazy self-conceits, but good he cannot remain. Francie seems never to really know what hit him; or rather, he knows what hit him—the Nugents—but he seems incapable of understanding the chain of events their arrival unleashes. Some essential innocence remains with him; otherwise, it’s doubtful readers could remain sympathetic. The extraordinary first-person voice of the book goes a long way here. Francie often relates things he clearly misunderstands, though adult readers can draw more accurate conclusions. In fact, Francie can’t seem to escape from his aborted childhood, even as his friends grow up and move on; he has trapped himself in the only vision of life he knew as good. And yet, Francie makes a certain peace with life, in the end; Oliver is merely rescued at last by kindly adults.

Both Dickens and McCabe manage to show how terrifying and difficult childhood can be: children often don’t understand what’s happening, have little self-control, almost no idea of how they affect life around them and have no real way to escape any of it. Dickens, reformer that he is, admonishes adults to care more for the tender young spirits, to save them from the world, rallying us to change; while McCabe suggests that maybe the world can’t touch what is most innocent in us and that, in spite of every horror, self-created and otherwise, we can make peace with life. The world is the world, big and messy; best see to yourself.

Good advice, lest you become, or create, another Francie Brady.

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