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Book Review

Ragged Dick or Street Life in New York With the Boot-Blacks by Horatio Alger Jr., has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first book in the “Ragged Dick” series.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Dick Hunter, or Ragged Dick, as he’s called among his friends on the streets of New York City, is a bootblack — a boy who shines shoes for a living. Orphaned at a young age, shoe shining and sleeping on the streets is the only life Dick can remember, but he’s a decent boy with good morals. His major vice is that he enjoys spending his money, often buying food or theater tickets for his fellow bootblacks. He is also known to indulge in smoking cigarettes and gambling.

One day, Dick overhears a gentleman apologizing to a boy. It seems the man would like to take the boy for a tour of the city, but has to work. Dick offers to guide the boy and is introduced to Mr. Whitney and his nephew, Frank. Although skeptical of Dick’s appearance, Mr. Whitney feels he has an honest face and can be trusted. They bring Dick up to their hotel room where Frank makes a gift to Dick of an old suit. Dick feels special in his new clothes. He buys a new cap to go along with his new attire, and the two boys set off to tour the city.

Dick is an informative and entertaining guide, and Frank soon grows to like and respect him. Frank’s friendliness and generosity inspire Dick to want to make more out his life. Over the course of the day, the two manage to be accused of robbing a woman on the trolley, an act that they are soon found innocent of. Dick also manages to get a con artist to return the money he stole from a country rube.

Dick returns Frank to his uncle that evening, having had an adventurous and informative day. Dick reminds Mr. Whitney of his own poor and friendless youth. He gives the boy a $5 bill for his services. He tells Dick that when he becomes a prosperous man, he must pay the kindness back by helping some other unfortunate person.

The $5 and the time spent with Frank inspire Dick to better himself. His first course of action is rent a room in a boarding house for 75 cents a week. It isn’t the cleanest of establishments, but it is better than foraging on the streets for a box in to sleep in. He also opens a bank account to save his earnings from his work as a shoeshine.

Dick remembers belatedly that he owes 15 cents to a gentleman who couldn’t wait for change after his shoes had been shined. Dick waits at the man’s office to bring him his money. The man, Mr. Greyson, is impressed with Dick’s new clothes and honesty. He invites Dick to attend his Sunday school class, and Dick agrees.

One night, while treating himself to dinner at a local diner, Dick sees a young bootblack named Fosdick looking a little under the weather. Dick offers to pay for Fosdick to have a good meal and then invites him back to his room to share his bed. Fosdick had been the only son of a businessman, but his father had died, leaving him penniless. When Dick learns his friend can read and write, he strikes a deal. Dick will pay for Fosdick to stay in his room if the boy will tutor him at night. Fosdick agrees, and Dick begins his lessons.

Dick and Fosdick attend Mr. Greyson’s church the following Sunday. The gentleman is pleased to see them and invites them to sit in the same pew as his wife and daughter. Nine-year-old Ida is smitten with Dick and asks him many questions. Mr. Greyson insists the boys come home to have dinner at his house before returning that afternoon for Sunday school class.

Dick is a quick learner under Fosdick’s tutelage. The two of them continue to save their money frugally until one day Dick decides his friend would do better getting a job in a real store. He uses his money to buy Fosdick a new suit of clothes in order to make a good impression on the merchants.

Unfortunately, most of them are unwilling to hire a boy who lives without his parents. His luck changes, however, when he applies to a hat shop in which Mr. Greyson happens to be visiting. Mr. Greyson vouches for Fosdick’s character, and the boy is employed. Dick continues to work as a shoeshine boy; within the year he has saved over $100.

One day, Dick offers to give a young bootblack money to pay for his family’s rent. He gives the boy the $3 in his pocket, but must get $2 more from the bank. It is then he discovers that his bankbook has been stolen. He and Fosdick believe it was done just that day, and they know who has done it: James Travis, a bartender who lives in the same boarding house. Fosdick and Dick are hopeful Travis hasn’t cleaned out the account. Dick heads out early for the bank the following morning.

Dick gives a description of Travis to the clerk and tells the man what happened. The clerk hides Dick when Travis comes into the bank. The police are called and Dick’s bankbook is returned to him. He doesn’t wish to press charges, but the police tell him that the bank must charge Travis with fraud. Although Travis vows revenge, the reader learns later that when he got out of jail, he went to California to search for gold.

Dick receives a letter from Frank telling him about his life in the boarding school. Fosdick encourages Dick to put his new learning to the test and write back to his friend. Fosdick then tells Dick that they should enroll in night school because Dick has caught up with him in learning.

Dick wonders if he has enough schooling to apply to a counting house for a position. He happens to be at the right place at the right time one afternoon when he takes a ride with Fosdick on the ferry. A gentleman riding with his two small children is momentarily distracted. His young son falls into the water. Dick jumps in and rescues the boy. Although the ferry does not turn around, two men in a rowboat pull Dick and the boy out of the water.

The gentleman insists that Dick come to his house. He demands Dick rest in bed until dry clothes can be brought to him. The clothes arrive with a note telling him to meet the man at his place of business the following day. After hearing that Dick desires a job, the gentleman takes stock of the boy’s handwriting. Then he promptly offers him a clerk’s position at $10 a week.

Dick is elated. Upon returning home, he and Fosdick make plans to look for a nicer room to rent. Both boys feel as if they’ve been blessed and can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Christian Beliefs

Frank asks if Dick has ever read the Bible. Dick says he hasn’t but he’s heard it’s a good book. He jumps at Mr. Greyson’s invitation to attend Sunday school. He and Fosdick go to a church service and attend Sunday school, but the reader isn’t told what they learn. A proverb is paraphrased as “pride had a fall.” The father of a drowning boy exclaims, “God be thanked,” when Dick rescues him.

Other Belief Systems

Frank tells Dick about Aladdin — how he rubbed a lamp that produced a genie that had to be his slave.

Authority Roles

Dick lives on his own but acts as a protector to those less fortunate. Random gentlemen enter his life and give him good advice, small amounts of money and clothes.


The reader is told that Dick sometimes swears, but no words are given except by hokey. The man who tried to steal Dick’s bankbook curses him, but no words are written.

A boy’s father is described as a violent drunk, whose rages put his son’s life in danger. He once threw a flatiron at his son’s head. Dick and another boy, Micky, have several run-ins that Micky instigates. They punch each other. Dick wins the fights but never takes advantage of the situation to pummel Micky.



Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Smoking: Although the reader never sees Dick smoke, we are informed that he has smoked cigars. The author explains that many bootblacks take up the habit because it helps to warm them.

Gambling: Dick likes to gamble, but again, the reader doesn’t see him gambling. Dick admits to betting money at cards.

Alcohol: The author explains that many bootblacks refresh themselves with liquor. A boy’s father is described as a drunkard.

Lying: Dick often makes up tall tales. They are never meant to hurt anyone, and they are told for amusement.

Stealing: Several characters are con artists who try and steal other people’s money. Dick gives one such man a phony bill in exchange for a wallet the man said is filled with money. Dick knows the man is lying and wants to teach him a lesson and save another unsuspecting person from being duped.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

10 and up


Horatio Alger Jr.






Record Label



Originally appeared in Student and Schoolmate magazine in 1867; first published as a book in 1868 by A.K. Loring. It is now published by Penguin Publishing, as well as others


On Video

Year Published





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