What begins as a Dickensian tale of woe becomes a rather remarkable journey through the vision of this talented author. Refusing to be restricted by the obvious, Hagen pushes his protagonist, the fairly miserable Tom Bedlam, to greater heights than might be expected from one with so bleak a fortune.
Raised in the slums of London, young Tom has little comfort, save a devoted if mentally unstable mother and a father who stops by only to take advantage of what meager goods they own, plucking his wifeís savings from the pages of the Bible with nimble fingers. Had he a more suspicious nature, Tom might have quickly assessed the worth of such a man, but raised to honor his parents, the boy is an unsuspecting victim of an unprincipled cur who commits his life to pilfering Tomís every financial opportunity.
After the death of his mother, Tom leaves his only friends, the Limpkins, behind, including Audrey Limpkin, a conscientious young woman who remains a beacon of virtue throughout the years. His continuing education financed by his maternal grandfather, Tom is enrolled in a boyís academy (after William Bedlams skims off the majority of the funds for himself).
For all the academyís pretensions, Tom is a student of the School of Hard Knocks, learning invaluable lessons from his fellows; in order to attend medical school in Scotland, Tom must acquiesce to his fatherís demands, compromising his integrity. Bowing once more to the emotional pressures of his father, Tom agrees.
Aside from the ubiquitous presence of William Bedlam, two themes dominate Tomís torturous life path: his enduring affection for Audrey, although the union remains out of reach, and his search for the brother who was stolen from his mother at birth by the despicable William. Both of these issues are eventually resolved, but not without considerable obstacles that would deter a lesser man.
Once in Scotland, Tom further escapes the reach of his father in South Africa, where he settles with his wife and four children. It is the children who offer Tom his most rewarding challenge as a loving father who hopes to provide more choices than he enjoyed. But conflict interferes, first the Boer War and then World War I, pulling Tomís son, Arthur, into its vortex. Meanwhile, the three daughters scatter to their fates, widower Tom trying his best to be supportive.
Long-relieved of the notion of filial respect, Tom travels a great distance from his humble beginnings, reflecting an evolving, status-conscious society, a tenacious soul who craves family and connection but has little that he does not achieve on his own. It is to the authorís credit that Tom does so with such panache, from London slums to respectable South African physician. But Tom never loses his charm, his nobility or his courage, pursuing the identity of his missing brother and relationship with Audrey to the final chapters, from bedlam to hero.