Friday, February 10, 2017

The Prince and the Pauper

The Prince and the PauperThe Prince and the Pauper by Samuel L Clemons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Prince and the Pauper

I don’t recall reading this as a child, which is too bad, as I think I would have loved it! I liked stories about knights and such, and while this isn’t specifically about knights, it does take place in “old England” and certainly transports the reader to that time and place.

Most people know the general idea of the story: a young street urchin and a prince (who happen to look alike) end up switching places, each living the life of the other for a few weeks. But maybe, like me, you are a little fuzzy on what exactly happens, and who, specifically, the titular prince is. (For instance, I always thought the swap in position was a deliberate, mutual undertaking - not so.) Clemens places the story at a specific time period, with an actual prince of England, Edward, son of Henry VIII. The author even uses footnotes for citations of actual events or practices of the time. And, as Clemens did with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he uses “dialect” to further immerse the reader into the time and locale of the story. In this case, the dialect is sort of a “King James English” with lots of “thee” and “thou” and the like. All of these things serve to make the story very realistic, even if the events might be a bit hard to swallow.

The story begins with a young boy, Tom Canty, who lives in a shack in Offal Lane. His father is an alcoholic abuser, and Tom lives a pretty rough life, as a result. But a priest took an interest in Tom, and taught him to read, so Tom escapes the cruelty of his real life with a vivid imagination. Tom loves nothing more than to imagine himself as a rich prince, living a life of ease and luxury. He is teased by his peers for this, but not severely so - his friends often join in his games of palace and royalty. Tom’s one goal in life is to see an actual, real life prince, so one day he goes to the palace to see if he can spot one. He runs afoul of one of the palace guards, who starts to beat him. Prince Edward sees this, and rushes out to Tom’s defense. He brings Tom inside, and the boys shyly start to get to know one another. They playfully swap clothes, and laugh at their identical looks. Events transpire that lead the prince to go outside, still in Tom’s clothes, where he is kicked out of the palace by the guard who first accosted Tom - the guard not believing the prince’s protestations as to his true identity. Thus begins the adventure for each boy, as each one learns to live in the strange world of the other.

Clemens doesn’t back off from the depredations and difficulties of being poor at that point in time. While he doesn’t go into details, there are beating, hangings, drunken parties, thieving, and so on. This is no happy-go-lucky poverty - this is the real, soul-crushing poverty, exacerbated by the laws of the time. Edward keeps insisting he is the prince, but, of course, no one believes him. He is befriended by a nobleman down on his luck, who takes pity on the poor “fool” and plays along with his “delusions” so as to not upset him. He hopes that by caring for Edward, he can eventually cure him of his madness. The prince encounters many rough characters, including Tom’s abusive father who is chasing him, thinking he is Tom who has run away. The prince’s eyes are opened as to the injustice of the laws, and vows to rectify this when he is returned to his throne.

We don’t spend quite as much time with Tom, who is attempting to fill the place of the prince. He knows he’s an imposter, but at first feels like he owes the real prince the duty to fill his place as well as possible. Later, Tom begins to really enjoy the life of luxury, and hardly thinks of the prince any more. We see his attempts to act princely, and his mistakes are chalked up to a temporary mental illness, that the palace staff hope he eventually gets over. The staff are all told not to mention Tom’s gaffes, but to gently guide him when he seems lost as to what to do.

Eventually, events transpire to bring Edward back to the palace, and he regains his throne. Tom is cared for financially, the prince (now the king) enacts better laws, and the nobleman who befriended him is restored to his estate. It’s a nice happy ending!

I think that any child would enjoy this book, though the dialect may be a bit hard for them. The depiction of life in poverty would be a good teaching tool. I can imagine lots of good lessons coming from this book, if a parent or teacher were so inclined.

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