Wednesday, June 5, 2013

June Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Tra-la, it's June. The garden's half in and so am I. But here's a book to lighten the load, and also to silence that pesky little voice that says you didn't do it justice in teenhood.

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By Mark Twain
Originally published in 1885
Kindle edition, March 2011

Here’s a confession: I didn’t read Huckleberry Finn when everyone else did, back in middle school or high school. I’ve also never read Moby Dick, and I probably won't catch up with that one. (In college I read everything else Melville wrote, so I figure I’m exempt.)  I still have hope for War and Peace.

What drove me from Huck Finn in my youth was the escaping slave Jim, whose dialect just took too much effort. ( An important lesson to us all—especially me, considering that my first book features a guy who often ta-a-alks like thi-i-is.)

Jim confronts Huck's "ghost" in an
 E.W. Kemple
illustration for the first edition.
Here’s what Jim says when he thinks he’s confronting Huck as a ghost: “You go en git in de river agin, whah you b’longs, en doan ’do nuffin to Ole Jim, ’at ’us awluz yo’ fren’.”  I didn’t want any part of that when I was a kid.

Also, I think I was uncomfortable with the N-word, which is sprinkled through this text. Although I don’t approve of banning books under any circumstances, or preventing kids from reading any of them ever, it’s clear why this one is a challenge for parents and teachers today. It definitely requires context and a lot of conversation. Both very good things.

All that said, halfway through this reading I announced to whoever was in the room (most likely the dog) that Huck Finn is the best American novel ever written. I bogged down later, but really this is a masterpiece. I started reading it this time around because I’d downloaded it free and I was away from home with my Kindle. I figured I’d dip into it before bed, and suddenly it was two hours later.

Huck is a marvelous character—a young reprobate, happiest lying flat on his back in the shade with a full stomach and a pipe in his mouth. And yet he is a total sweetheart, pretty much a friend to all and without the mischievous spark of his pal Tom Sawyer, hero of the Twain book that introduced Huck to the world. Despite a ramshackle upbringing with a horror of a drunken, thieving father, he is quick to recognize his sins and attempt to atone for them.

It’s this last characteristic that Twain uses to great comic and cosmic effect.

The action takes place along the southern Mississippi River before the Civil War, when slavery was in full cry. On the lam from his evil father, Huck ends up on a raft with Jim, who hopes to escape to the free territories of the west. Along the way, they have adventures with a rich, funny, pungent collection of con-men, robbers, murders, aristocrats, and common folk.

Here’s the thing: Huck has been taught that slavery is the good and right way of things. He thinks helping a slave escape is a crime, even a sin that will condemn his soul to hell. Because he’s a nice guy and really likes Jim, though, his instinct is to help his friend out and keep him safe. There’s a fascinating battle going on inside of Huck, and we get to watch it play out.

It’s genius. In 1885, twenty years after the end of the Civil War,  Huck’s struggle to dehumanize Jim—and his failure—must have hit home like a howitzer shell.

Most of the book is hysterical, too, although I have to say that I could have done without the reintroduction of Tom Sawyer three-quarters of the way through. His ridiculous attempt to add swashbuckling complications to a simple rescue of Jim goes on way too long, and that’s where the book bogged down for me.  I can’t help thinking that Tom’s there not for the advancement of literature but just because he was such a popular character with readers.

Hey, something had to pay for all those white suits.

If you, like me, managed to escape reading this book in middle school, I urge you to give it another try. Even if you did read it back then, you might want to pick it up again as an adult. It has pleasures and insights you might have missed during the Hormone Years.

Dear FCC: This book was free, and I downloaded it of my own free will. Neither Mark Twain nor his publisher gives two hoots what I have to say about it.


Rose said...

Great review, Ellen! I actually read this book several times from middle school through college and then even taught it to a bunch of 11th graders a couple of years. It's always been one of my favorites, but kids often don't appreciate Twain's humor and are put off by the dialect, as you were. Maybe it's a book that's best read as an adult. There is such a rich complexity to this book (except for the last part--I agree) that it's a shame it's been taken out of some curricula.

Love your disclaimer--Twain would have approved:)

pattinase (abbott) said...

I read it not long and ago and enjoyed it but think it is a mistake to give this to kids especially as the dialect becomes more and more remote.

Ellen Booraem said...

You may be right, Patti and Rose. I certainly was a voracious reader as a kid, and was accustomed to mixing grown-up books in with the kidlit. If I couldn't hack the dialect it's probably a bad sign.

It should be required reading for adults, though, if such a thing exists. It's a great book, but also it's living history.

Barrie said...

I LOVED Huck Finn as a teen. And Tom Sawyer. I know I struggled with the dialect, but I guess it wasn't off-putting enough to make me put down the books. I'll have to ask my teen (who has just finished reading Huck Finn for high-school English) how he felt about the dialect. Great review. Always fun to revisit older books. I always enjoy your FCC disclaimers. ;)

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I loved Huck Finn when I read it as a junior in high school (I think that was the year...) I read Moby Dick too, and I'll never get those hours of my life back!

Glad you enjoyed it--Mark Twain was quite an author!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Like you, I missed Huck Finn as a teen, but hope to read it one day. Moby Dick? Nah. Got about halfway thru War and Peace before I gave up (in my 20s).

Huck is an important book thoug and your review made me want tomread it.

Sarah Laurence said...

Happy July 4, Ellen! Please accept my apologies for delaying my book club visits for so long. I'm back online while my agent is rereading my MS and the sun is back too.

I love this review! You make me want to reread Twain. He was assigned reading in high school and I slogged through it with few pleasant memories. Perhaps we should all wait until adulthood to read it? In the past year or so, the book was republished without the n-word for classrooms and created quite a bit of controversy.

I love Melville's short stories/novellas but I could not get through Moby Dick, even in adulthood. I gave up War and Peace as a teen (reading for fun and war wasn't fun) but I'd like to try it again. But I have so many new books to read and to review. Too many good books and too little time!