“Once upon a winter’s night when the wind blew its guts out and a fishy piece of moon scuttled among the clouds, a coach came thundering down the long hill outside of Dorking. Its progress was wild, and the coachman and his guard rocked from side to side as if the maddened vehicle was struggling to rid itself of them before going on to hell without the benefit of further advice.”
If you like that beginning and you like historical fiction written in such a style, you might very well want to pick up this book or another of Leon Garfield’s many historical novels for children. I remember reading Garfield novels, perhaps Smith or Black Jack, back in the day when I and my peers were the target audience. So I know that young teens, maybe even eleven and twelve year olds, can enjoy the stories. However, as I read The Sound of Coaches, I really felt the prose style and the plot would appeal more to an older audience, maybe adult and young adult fans of Dickens and other Victorian authors.
Garfield’s plot and characters and atmosphere owe a lot to Dickens. I was especially reminded of Great Expectations as I read this story of an orphan boy of mysterious parentage who is raised by a common coachman and his wife. The coachman, called Chichester after his road, and his wife, a rather fierce woman who serves as the above-mentioned guard on his route to and from London to Chichester, are a couple of gruff and stolid exterior with hearts of gold, as the saying goes. They adopt the orphaned infant Sam at the beginning of the novel, and the story goes on to tell how Sam grows up and becomes a flawed, but perceptive and empathetic, adult.
Sam’s search for his “other father” and for his true origins is similar to Pip’s search for his mysterious benefactor. And Sam, like Pip, finds that people are not what they seem to be at first glance. The Sound of Coaches is not as difficult, or rewarding, to read as Dickens’ novels are, but it might be a good introduction to the genre of picaresque orphan adventure and coming of age novels. If it goes down well, follow it up with David Copperfield or Great Expectations. (We read Great Expectations aloud as a family when my oldest children were probably 12, 10, and 8 years old, and it was a great success, although it took some perseverance at first.)
I plan to read (or maybe re-read) Garfield’s Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket, recently republished by New York Review Children’s Collection, as soon as I manage to get through the holidays and the Cybils and the hundred and one other things I have going on in my life. However, since reading is an important and necessary part of that life, and since I enjoyed The Sound of Coaches a lot, I may get to Smith sooner rather than later. I don’t have time for a re-read of Dickens right now, but I think I can make time for some Garfield.