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Little Tim Grows Up

A Review of Mr. Timothy

Charles Dickens, English literature's unmatched character creator, managed to conjure up the most romantic, sweetly sick, maudlin personality ever to poke his tiny head into our Christmas celebrations. The Cratchit dinner party with Tiny Tim's banal "What a goose, Mother!" is more than enough to turn the cranberry sour on us.

I imagine a much older Timothy Cratchit would cringe hearing the tiresome family stories of his infant self, as we all do when our parents, in a flush of narrative nostalgia, show our naked-bottom photos to their friends.

Louis Bayard assists Tim Cratchit in finding his own voice and getting some dignity, as well as revenge, in the recent thriller Mr. Timothy. Fed up with being a product of someone else's pity, idealization or philanthropy, Tim, upon the death of his father Bob, found his way to the gritty side of Victorian life. Living in a whorehouse, paying his rent through reading tutorials with the resident Madam, Tim acquired an autonomous start, out from the velvet grip of the Cratchits and Scrooge.

Robinson Crusoe, the book he and the Madam are studying, foreshadows many of the themes found in Mr. Timothy: rebellion, autonomy, tortured conscience, and dangerous adventure. Growing up is neither a neat nor tidy process; it requires genuine struggle, true integration of values, and the accepting of responsibility. Tim's grown-up life is lived in vital contact with others but not under their shadow. He holds his own among the girls of the trade, those who manage them and those who exploit them.

Timothy's maturation is not limited to self-development but extends to genuine care for others less fortunate. Two Victorian waifs, Philomel, an Italian orphan, and Colin, a neglected songster and thief, are younger prototypes of the maturing Tim who "fathers" them without placing them in his shadow or making them extensions of his own story. While children in their relationship with Tim, they nonetheless retain their dignity as individuals.

Getting out from beneath someone else's narrative is hard enough but a more difficult feat is doing so while still maintaining respect and understanding for those who have wrongfully treated you. Interspersed in the action are Tim's ghost letters to his father. They acknowledge Bob's flaws and the strange life of the Cratchits, as well as the deep regret and gratitude that Tim develops for his father and step-uncle Ebenezer. Being a surrogate father puts his own childhood in a more nuanced perspective.

Fathers, origins, the maltreatment of children, and the creation of a broader more humane definition of family are the Dickensian themes that weave their way through the perambulations of Mr. Timothy's dark plot of smuggling, exploitation, and murder. Bayard's redrafting of Dickens's Tim Cratchit is more than a self indulgent, postmodern exercise in outfoxing the classics; it is a legitimate help to any reader hoping to deepen and make contextually significant a time-honoured modern myth.

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