I did not understand from the reviews I read for this book that it was a children’s book until I noticed its sprightly and simple tone. (My copy did not have this cover.) However, it is not suitable for just any child, because it begins with a murder and includes other violent acts. When I read in the introduction that Garfield wanted to write books full of adventure, like those by Robert Louis Stevenson, that made sense to me. The book is also described as Dickensian, but whereas some of Dickens’ and Stevenson’s books appeal to both adults and children, Smith does not have as much to offer adults.
Smith shares some plot elements with Oliver Twist, if the hero of the latter had been the Artful Dodger instead of the more innocent Oliver. For Smith is a twelve-year-old pickpocket. His adventures start when he picks the pocket of an old gentleman. Right after he does that, he sees the man murdered by two men dressed in brown. These men chase after Smith, but he eludes them.
Smith finds that all he has stolen is a paper that he can’t read. He is smart enough, though, to figure out that the paper must be important, since the men in brown are looking for him. Soon he finds he must leave the cellar where he lives with his two sisters and flee for his life. He goes looking for someone to teach him to read.
Smith’s adventures lead him to meet lots of characters who are vaguely Dickensian but somehow not as fully drawn as Dickens’ own. He finds shelter with a kindly blind man and his gruff daughter, is friends with a boastful highwayman, and meets an untrustworthy lawyer.
I found Smith only mildly entertaining but think that a child of the right age could be fascinated with this book—both by the life of a Victorian street urchin and by Smith’s adventures.