During his tour of the United States, Charles Dickens meets Commissioner Wentworth and takes exception to New York city's jail, known as The Tombs. He recalls when, as a boy of 12, his own father was jailed for 9 months without any evidence. Charles had obtained employment with Cousin James, working in horrible circumstances making boot polish (the blacking of the title). He's bullied by one of the older boys who terrify him by covering him with blacking. At the Dickens home, Mr. Kerr continues to press for repayment and the elder Dickens finds himself in the sponging-house, a temporary jail for debtors. Charles begs and borrows and even sells some of his possessions to raise the funds for his father's release but only manages half of the amount. Some sad news actually brings good fortune.