In the late 1800s, rather than run the risk of his under-achieving sons tarnishing his reputation at home, Charles Dickens sent two of them to Australia.
The tenth child of Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, known as Plorn, had consistently proved unable ‘to apply himself ’ to school or life. So aged sixteen, he is sent, as his brother Alfred was before him, to Australia.
Plorn arrives in Melbourne in late 1868 carrying a terrible secret. He has never read a word of his father’s work. He is sent out to a 2000-square-mile station in remotest New South Wales to learn to become a man, and a gentleman stockman, from the most diverse and toughest of companions. In the outback he becomes enmeshed with Paakantji, colonists, colonial-born, ex-convicts, ex-soldiers, and very few women.
Plorn, unexpectedly, encounters the same veneration of his father and familiarity with Dickens’ work in Australia as was rampant in England. Against this backdrop, and featuring cricket tournaments, horse-racing, bushrangers, sheep droving, shifty stock and station agents, frontier wars and first encounters with Australian women, Plorn meets extraordinary people and enjoys wonderful adventures as he works to prove himself.
This is Tom Keneally in his most familiar terrain. Taking historical figures and events and reimagining them with verve, compassion and humour. It is a triumph.
“The Dickens Boy reimagines the extraordinary (and little-known) episode in the life of one (Plorn) of the two sons whom Dickens sent to an outback station in NSW, fearing he would 'waste' a life in London. Familiar and rewarding terrain for a much-loved novelist.”
David Gaunt, The Gleaner
“This is an ingenious, hilarious novel. It is Keneally at his most comic. The Dickens Boy is a fast-paced romp through a few years in our colonial history. The new novel includes several outright inventions and other circumstances and developments that it’s impossible to know the truth of. Did Plorn meet the bushranger Captain Starlight? He does in the novel and it is a wonderful extended scene. Did one of the brothers who ran the sheep station try to seduce Plorn? Did Plorn chase emus on horseback? Was Caroline Chisholm to blame for Charles Dickens's abiding interest in Australia, a place to which he was twice invited but never visited? Did the boys hear about their father’s death the way they do in the novel? Almost certainly not. Keneally does what he does so well: he plucks people from the pages of history and gives them emotional lives.”
Stephen Romei, The Australian