Grade 5-8 -To say that this lively novel is Dickensian is to understate its debt to that author. The story abounds in terrifying villains, grime, misery, and cruelty. Yet it also serves up a fair share of optimism. The narrator, Tom Tin, has fallen on hard times through no fault of his own. When his father, an unemployed ship's captain, is taken to debtor's prison, Tom discovers the dark underbelly of 19th-century London. He has the incredible luck of finding a valuable diamond, only to lose it in a grave robbery. Then he is arrested for theft, convicted of murder, and incarcerated on a dismal prison ship for boys. There he is mistaken for a boy called Smasher, who was part of a dastardly gang of pickpockets. Unfortunately for Tom, one of Smasher's victims is also on the ship and vows revenge. A wretched and weak youngster named Midgely convinces Tom that they can escape to a better life, and they hatch a plan. The plot twists in this story rely on a series of coincidences that no reader will take seriously, but this is where the fun lies. One is never sure what lurks around the next corner. This book is as action packed and as thoroughly researched as the author's seafaring trilogy, but it will be accessible to a wider audience because of its easier reading level. Give it to reluctant readers who are looking for an exciting adventure.-Bruce Anne Shook, Mendenhall Middle School, Greensboro, NC
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After seeing his father hauled off to debtor’s prison, Tom Tin sets out to take revenge on Mr. Goodfellow, the man responsible for his family’s misfortunes. But the fog-filled London streets are teeming with sinister characters. Tom encounters a blind man who scavenges the riverbed for treasure—and wants what Tom digs up; Worms, a body snatcher who reveals a shocking surprise; and a nasty gang of young pickpockets who mistake Tom for someone ominously known as the Smasher. And ultimately, Tom comes up against the cruel hand of the law.
Accused of murder, Tom is given a seven-year sentence. He is to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land with other juvenile convicts. But Tom can’t abide life on the Hulk, the old ship where the boys are temporarily held. He decides to escape. But if he’s to succeed, his luck needs to turn. . . .
Gr. 7-10. When his father lands in debtors' prison, Tom, 14, tries to survive on the rough streets of early-nineteenth-century London. The setting is Dickensian, though more gruesome, and the story is packed with action and wild coincidence: Tom finds, and loses, a diamond; joins a street gang; and helps a grave robber steal a corpse. He is sentenced to seven years on a prison ship for boys, escapes, is recaptured, and is transported to Australia. Tom is no saint; in fact, he's ashamed of his meanness and cunning. Readers may not understand the message about social class or the parallels to the classics referred to in the story. What they will find unforgettable is the gritty historical fact, especially the horror of the young convicts' daily struggle and the wretched suffering of 500 children packed and punished on the ship.^B Hazel Rochman
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Iain Lawrence is the author of numerous acclaimed novels, including The Lightkeeper’s Daughter, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, Ghost Boy, and the High Seas Trilogy: The Wreckers, The Smugglers, and The Buccaneers. The author lives on Gabriola Island, BC.
I begin my adventure
When she was six and I was eight, my little sister, Kitty, died. She fell from a bridge, into the Thames, and drowned before anyone could reach her. My mother was there when it happened. She heard a scream and turned to see my sister spinning through the air. She watched Kitty vanish into the eddies of brown water, and in that instant my mother's mind unhinged.
She put on mourning clothes of the blackest black and hid herself from head to toe, like a beetle in a shell. As the sun went up, as the sun went down, she stood over Kitty's grave. Her veils aflutter in the wind, her shawls drooping in the rain, she became a phantom of the churchyard, a figure feared by children. Even I, who had known her all my life, never ventured near the place when the yellow fogs of autumn came swirling round the headstones.
It was a day such as that, an autumn day, when my father had to drag her from my sister's grave. The fog was thick and putrid, like a vile custard poured among the tombstones. From the iron gate at the street I couldn't see as far as the church. But I saw the crosses and the marble angels, some distinct, some like shadows, and my father among them, as though battling with a demon. I heard my mother wailing.
Her boots were black, her bonnets black, and the rippling of her clothes made her look more like a beast than a person. She shrieked and fought against him, clinging to the headstone, clawing at the earth. When at last my father brought her through the gate, she was howling like a dog. In her hand was a fistful of dirt. She looked at it, and fainted dead away.
We lifted her into the cart, among the bundles and the chests that represented all our goods. The drayman climbed to his seat. He cracked his whip and swore at his horse, and off we started for Camden Town.
I walked beside my father as we passed our empty house and turned toward the bridge. By chance, the drayman chose the same route that Father took every morning on his useless treks to the Admiralty. I saw him look up at the house, then down at the ground, and we went along in silence. Only a few feet before me, the cart was no more than a gray shape. It seemed to be pulled by an invisible horse that snorted and wheezed as it clopped on the paving stones. My mother woke and sat keening on the cart.
We were nearly at the river before my father spoke. "This is for her own good," he said. "You know that, Tom."
"Yes," I said, though it wasn't true. We were not leaving Surrey for my mother's sake, but only to save the two pennies my father spent crossing the bridge every day. We were leaving because Mr. Goodfellow had driven us away, just as he had driven us from a larger house not a year before. I believed he would haunt us forever, chasing us from one shrinking home to the next, until he saw us out on the streets with the beggars and the blind. We were leaving Surrey because my father was a sailor without a ship.
He didn't walk like a sailor anymore. He didn't look like one, nor even smell like one, and I wouldn't have believed he had ever been a sailor if it weren't for the threadbare uniform he donned every morning, and for the bits of sailory knickknack that had once filled our house but now were nearly gone. In all my life I had watched him sailing out to sea only once, and then in a thing so woeful that it sank before he reached the Medway. That, too, had been Mr. Goodfellow's doing; that had been the start of it.
When we reached the timber wharfs at the foot of the bridge I could feel the Thames close at hand. Foghorns hooted and moaned, and there came the thumping of a steamboat as it thrashed its way along the river. But I couldn't smell the water; the stench of the fog hid even that.
We paid our toll and started over the bridge. Father walked at the very edge, his sleeve smearing the soot that had fallen on the rail. Horses and carriages appeared before us, and a cabriolet came rattling up from behind. I had to dodge around people, and step nimbly from a curricle's path, but my father walked straight ahead with a mind only for the river below us. Ladies on the benches drew in their feet as he passed. One snatched up a little white dog. A man shouted, "Watch where you're walking." But Father just brushed by them all.
I imagined that he could somehow see the water, and all the life upon it. Sounds that drifted up to me as mere groans and puzzling splashes must, to him, have been visions of boatsmen and bargemen, of oars and sails at work. His head rose; his shoulders straightened for a moment.
I had no wish to know his world, though I had been born by the banks of the Thames, where the river met the sea. We'd left the village before I was two, at the wishes of my mother. The river had taken her father, and the sea had taken her brothers, and ever since my sister's death she'd taught me to fear them both. I often thought--when I saw the Thames swirling by--that one or the other was waiting to take me too.