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Ragged Dick: Street Life in New York

Cover of Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger

I’d heard of rags to riches stories a.k.a. Horatio Alger stories, but I’d never actually read a book by Horation Alger — till now. I raced through Ragged Dick in two days, not just because it’s short, but because it’s funny. Alger reminds me of Dickens or Twain as he has jokes on every page.

Ragged Dick is a 14 year old orphan, a shoe shine boy who must sleep on the streets in a box of straw or old wagon if he can find one. He’s got wit and pluck and amuses and impresses his well-to-do customers. Time and again he shows his hilariously funny, honest, kind and brave. Yes, it’s a morality tale and the ending is happy, but it wasn’t as pat as I’d expected.

Spoiler Alert: Dick doesn’t wind up as a millionaire by the stories end. He does start out in actual rags which he explains he would get rid of but since George Washington and Louis Napolean (sic) gave him those close he felt he couldn’t.

While Dick’s a good lad, he’s not an angel with a dirty face (though he does have a dirty face). The narrator and Dick tell us that he smokes cigars, goes to the Bowery Theater a lot, doesn’t save money and gambles. Yet he corrals his vices in due time.

Much of the story consists of Dick showing Frank, a country boy who’s uncle is busy with business all day around the streets of New York, where there’s a con artist around every corner. Frank and the uncle get Dick a new suit for the day and suddenly Dick’s treated with great respect wherever he goes (well, almost) and a lot of folks don’t recognize him. Through Frank we learn that Dick’s in a jam. Because he’s so good and diligent about getting business, he makes $3 a day. If he worked at a counting house or store he’d just get $3 a week. He doesn’t pursue other work because that would mean a short term loss. Also, these clerk jobs tend to go to boys from in tact families. The book then is more than just a series of funny adventures, it does show aspects of 19th century urban America.

Like Dickens Ragged Dick will appeal to readers of all ages.

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