I was led to re-read this book after watching the Ken Burns documentary about Mark Twain (which was fascinating and highly recommended). A big part of the documentary was about his most famous book and character, and so inspired me to pick this one up again.
I have a vague memory of reading this in school at some point, but cannot remember exactly when, but I’m calling this one a re-read anyway.
As expected, the book is a bit difficult to get into, given the vernacular narration – it requires a bit of back-tracking sometimes to be sure you’ve still got the gist of the story. The novel is both a reflection and a repudiation of the times, presenting the violence and social circumstances as both normal and inconceivable. Huck’s own moral journey is remarkable given his background and environment, but viewed with today’s lens of social justice, seems inevitable.
It is truly a boy’s adventure, complete with fishing, sleeping “rough”, pirates, and the other trappings of American boys life, in much the same way that Anne of Green Gables is more appealing to Canadian girls. Reading it as an adult, the juvenile thoughts and experiences seem truly naïve, but Twain’s telling of Huck’s dilemmas and revelations are wonderful to experience.
Another element I found interesting is the ambiguity about Huck’s age. While essentially a schoolboy, his exact age (perhaps unknown even to him) is never made clear, other than somewhere vaguely between twelve and fourteen (but I think could be as young as eleven or as old as sixteen). Striking out on his own as he does, and his experiences with the adults in his life, both at home and on the river, vary significantly in their level of awe depending on how old one thinks he is. The thought of a boy just barely in his teens having to live and make decisions as he does is remarkable and scary at times. And yet, there’s a modernity to that: when one considers children in today’s world who grow up in poverty or disadvantage – homeless children, child soldiers, child brides, child slaves – the resilience and strength in the face of adversity is a story that transcends time and circumstance.
Of all the social elements of the novel, it is Huck’s casual independence that I found so striking – his desire and ability to live on the fringes of society, to maintain a separation but also a connection, and a strange sense of responsibility to those he loves; his concern about disappointing others who he hold in high esteem guides some of his choices but also presents conflicts for him as he matures and makes decisions that build his character and the story.
So an enjoyable experience, a tough read, but highly worthwhile.
1 – a book in which there is a murder
3 – a book published before 1900
9 – a book that has been a film
13 – a book set in a place that you’ve never been
14 – a book with a person’s name in the title