cover image Street Child

Street Child

Berlie Doherty. Orchard Books (NY), $17.95 (154pp) ISBN 978-0-531-06864-9

Homelessness is the central topic of this grim and gripping novel set in Victorian England. Doherty (Dear Nobody) builds her plot around the few facts known about Jim Jarvis, the London urchin who is said to have inspired Thomas Barnardo to establish his homes for destitute boys, the first such asylums in Britain. No longer able to afford the rent on the squalid tenement room they call home, Jim, his sisters and his sick, widowed mother are turned out into the inhospitable streets of London. The next way-station on Jim's downward spiral is the workhouse. There Jim's mother's dies, and Jim seems destined to become like the other inmates, broken-spirited paupers who answer to pious-speaking sadists. After much hardship, Jim escapes, and spends what prove to be his happiest days on the street. His idyll ends when, for a single coin, he is sold into servitude to the cruel drunkard Grimy Nick, captain of a small coal ferry. Until his lucky encounter with Barnardo, every adult Jim meets is either kindly but powerless or greedy and heartless; his only friends are other street children, and even they are not entirely to be trusted. With its sootily authentic atmosphere and its earnest reformist message, this tale calls to mind the ambience of Charles Dickens's novels. Ages 8-12. (Oct.)