Wednesday, August 26, 2009

At Forty-Five, I'm Finally Ready: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

My parents gave me my own copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child. This was actually unusual for them--they gave me remarkably few books considering what a ravenous reader I was. I was a real library kid.

The irony was that, at age 9, Huck totally stumped me. I read some of it--I was the kind of kid who would read a cereal box if there wasn't a book in front of me--but I didn't like it. It made me feel uncomfortable. I didn't know how to process it, and I really couldn't relate to Huck. I mean, Tom Sawyer, sure, he acted wild, but I knew he was a regular kid underneath, and that Becky Thatcher would eventually tame him even if Aunt Polly couldn't. But Huck lived on riverboats and in forests, didn't wash, had a seriously evil father, and seemed unlikely to become a banker or a lawyer when he grew up. I was the kind of kid who would have begged the Widow Douglas to take me in and civilize me if I were in Huck's shoes, but Huck rejected civilization to the end. What's more, he saw through it, or partly did, or should have, in ways that I wasn't ready for. His life was edgy, and I was scared to live it, even vicariously.

It's taken me quite a while to return to Huck, but this summer at the cottage my husband read it aloud to me over the course of two weeks. And it was so wonderful--we were intensely engaged and it provoked much discussion and emotion between us. There were times when the tension ran so high I couldn't listen any more, and other times when I wouldn't let Doug stop reading. I loved the outrageously brilliant language and the sense of place and Twain's ability to be so side-splittingly funny but also so dark and daring. There is a sense of innovation that comes through fresh and strong, even though Huckleberry Finn is over a hundred and twenty years old. This is definitely a book which rewards reading aloud, especially by a reader who is good with dialect and expression.

But what kept us both glued to the book and kept it alive for us afterwards was the way Huck's story was twined in with Jim, the runaway slave. Jim unsettles everything and turns what might be a "boy's own" style adventure into something real and serious. Jim is the vehicle for Huck's growth but also shows us Huck's limits. Their relationship is complicated and I, as a modern reader, often felt that Huck was letting Jim down in ways he didn't seem to even understand. The episodes where Huck would end up leaving Jim alone on the raft (or worse) without a thought for days or even weeks at a time drove me insane. Likewise the nightmare fact that their trip wasn't taking them in the direction that Jim needed to go to attain his goal of freedom, and Huck wasn't doing much about it. The times when Huck considered turning Jim in to the authorities felt like real threats to me as well. As much as Huck and Jim are companions, Huck just never seemed intellectually capable of challenging the idea of slavery as a social institution. So frustrating! But there is a genuine closeness between them despite all this, and I found it moving how Jim slowly lets Huck know more about his inner life, his wife and children and how constantly they are in his thoughts.

Reading it now, I understand why this was over my head thirty-five years ago. I'm left wondering--is this really a children's book?

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