by Charles Dickens
Roald Dahl apparently considered this a book every child should be familiar with. He mentions it in more than one of his stories for the young. I second that opinion. Of all the young heroes whose struggles form the meat of Dickens' novels, I personally like Nicholas Nickleby best. It may not be his strongest novel, from any technical standpoint, but young Nicholas is definitely his strongest hero. No pale, sickly waif this; touch this young man where his honor (or his family's honor) lies, and he will touch you back! Okay, he's not perfect, he's not altogether wise and self-controlled, he is a bit headstrong--but he is a hero to cheer for!
Nicholas' father dies, leaving him at age 17 the head of his family, with nothing but debts to their name. So he, his mother, and his younger sister Kate betake themselves to London to seek help from his father's moneylender brother, Uncle Ralph. But Ralph Nickleby is as cruel as he is stingy, and he takes an instant dislike to Nicholas. Consigning him to a miserable teaching job in the Yorkshire school Dotheboys Hall (run by the despicable rogue Wackford Squeers), Ralph takes advantage of the lad's absence to put Kate in, er, socially compromising positions. Some of these involve a world-class cad named Sir Mulberry Hawk and an ill-fated dupe with the hard-to-forget name of Lord Verisopht.
But you can't keep a good Nickleby down. After memorably beating the Yorkshire schoolmaster with his own cane, Nicholas runs away with a consumptive boy named Smike who forms a deep attachment to him. The two join the outrageous acting troupe of Vincent Crummles for a while, then return to London to save Kate and Nick's mother from the nefarious designs of Uncle Ralph. The siblings try their hands at other means of living, revealing more of the foibles of British society at the time. Meanwhile, the vengeful Ralph tries other ways of hurting Nicholas: through his heart.
In a climax that involves Ralph's alcoholic secretary, a dark secret from the past, a beautiful girl and her debt-prone father, and a pair of twin brother philanthropists named the Brothers Cheeryble, the good Nicklebys are finally sorted out from the bad, everyone gets their just desserts, and a bright future dawns for the little family led by our impulsive young hero.
After you read this book, and love it of course, look out for the excellent American-made (!) film of this book, recently released on video with Christopher Plummer as Ralph Nickleby, Jim Broadbent as Squeers, and Nathan Lane as Crummles. The perfect cast also includes Timothy "Wormtail" Spall. As for the book itself, which was only Dickens' third full-length novel, Dickens' portrayal of Squeers actually led to reforms of the Yorkshire schools. Some readers (including essayist G. K. Chesterton) say Nicholas Nickleby is the book that marked Dickens' real entry into the brotherhood of Great Novelists. See for yourself!
Recommended Age: 14+
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