Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain

This has been an all-classics summer as I've been reading through the new books I'll be teaching this year. Some I had never read before (like Red Badge of Courage) and some I'd read but barely remembered (like The Scarlet Letter). A few I debated on (deciding, for example, against reading The Great Gatsby now because I reread it only a few years ago), and I was on the fence about Huck Finn since I don't think I've read it since college. I chose to reread and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was also surprised by just how familiar the entire book was to me. Heck, I remembered it better, even though it's been probably nine years since I read it, than I now remember Red Badge of Courage, which I finished a couple weeks ago.

My excellent recall is probably due to Huck Finn's memorable storyline and iconic narrator. We all can't help but love Huck Finn who, despite his awful upbringing, is at heart a decent and loyal boy. Of course, we love him all the more because he is convinced of his own wickedness yet struggles mightily to do the right thing. When he tricks Jim for fun and sees how hurt Jim is by his actions, he apologizes and changes his ways. He's even able to evolve beyond the social mores of his time and choose to assist Jim in his escape from slavery. Nonetheless, Huck wouldn't be any fun if he were all "heart of gold." He's also inventive and intelligent, reminding me of Odysseus in his skill (most of the time anyway) in lying.

The book is best when it focuses on Jim and Huck's travels, including the indelible American image of the small raft on the Mississippi river. When the "king" and "duke" join the caravan, the book is more humorous, but it also shifts away from Huck and Jim's central relationship and largely ignores the fact that Jim is separated from his family and running for his life.

This leads to the almost intolerable last quarter of the book, when Jim is captured and Huck is reunited with Tom Sawyer. Though Huck is for freeing Jim and escaping quickly, he allows Tom to talk him into a complicated and convoluted plan created solely for Tom's amusement. Though I think this is probably true to life--as a teacher, I often see students who are good and decent on their own but turn into asses with their friends--it's also frustrating as a reader. Huck and Tom not only put Jim, but Tom's Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas, though hell, and though Huck sees the pointlessness of it all, he doesn't really seem to consider the pain he's inflicting. Because the book's a comedy, their actions are in the end largely innocuous--Tom isn't seriously hurt; Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas forgive; Jim is deus ex machina-ed out of slavery--but that doesn't change the fact that we lose some of that good side of Huck we'd come to love.

Nonetheless, Huck Finn is an excellent adventure story in its own right and so clearly has a central place in American history, making is one of those rare high school required reading books that I think teenagers will actually enjoy.

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