This book starts out as a Dickensian tale: Tom Bedlam lives in a tenement with his mother and several other families. As a child Tom’s closest friends are Oscar and Audrey Limpkin whose large family is warm and welcoming, somewhat like the Cratchet family in A Christmas Carol. Tom and his mother both work in a ceramics factory for pennies a day. Tom’s father deserted the family long ago, leaving his mother to raise him alone. Despite these poor circumstances, his mother is exceedingly cheerful. She tucks away money with the hope of getting her son an education. Unfortunately Bill Bedlam, Tom’s father returns. He’s a self-centered cad, an unemployed actor always looking for a scam. He finds Tom’s mother’s money and disappears again. Shortly thereafter Tom’s mother becomes ill. As she is dying she reveals that Tom had an older brother that BiIl Bedlam took away. Did the baby die, or did he give the child away? Shortly thereafter Tom’s mother dies, and Tom is alone.
And then things change. Instead of a life of drudgery at the factory, Tom’s maternal grandfather appears and Tom is sent to school. The school is the worst Victorian England has to offer and Tom has a horrible experience. That experience allows him to attend medical school and to change his name from the unfortunate moniker Bedlam to Chapel. When he graduates he leaves for South Africa.
Part two of the book starts with Tom and Lizzy’s new life in South Africa in 1889. Tom has four children who grow to adulthood just before and during the first World War. What started out as a family novel becomes an anti-war novel. The way things come together are improbable and somewhat like an old English novel, and yet it isn’t. Somehow the old threads and new threads weave together in a satisfying way. Hagen pulls this book off, making it quite an enjoyable read.