Getting Back Between the Pages with an Old Friend: Part II
By Charles Johnson

Over Christmas 2019, I dug out a book I hadn’t read for a long time and wrote about it here. That book was TOM SAWYER by Mark Twain, and I mentioned that next it would be HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

. . . And it came to pass that in February 2020 I started reading. I was expecting the same tone, the same boyish misadventures magnified by the literary mind of Mark Twain. Wrong.

TOM SAWYER pretty much stayed around his home town and in one summer. Geographically static and chronologically short. Small-town flings of puppy love, cave explorations and camping on the river, misguided decision making like attending one’s own funeral, and yes, a more adult circumstance like a murder to make it interesting.

However, in HUCKLEBERRY FINN, this is not the case. So much for small towns and adolescent concerns with a few adult issues.

The reader is fed a raft trip running over a couple hundred miles at least and for a good several months with several different settings. There is an alcoholic, abusive parent who is as villainous as any other literary figure. Con artists appear who bilk entire towns of their riches via fraudulent schemes. People pose as others to gain advantage. Houses are knocked off their foundations float down the river with some grizzly cargo. And while we’re at it, how do you help a runaway slave gain his freedom without being found out?

Read that last paragraph again and tell me it makes you think of TOM SAWYER.

There’s the Twain humor. There’s wit, desperation, ignorance and so many other traits that comes out of the wonderful characterizations that spin out of Mark Twain’s imagination – and yet, I can’t help but think he based some of his characters on people he actually knew. For those of you who write, you probably do the same thing.

As for the time period, by the way, we’re in the mid-1800s – the mighty southern plantations were losing their grip on their system of labor through slavery. One of the central plots in HUCKLEBERRY FINN is the relationship of Huck with the slave Jim. They travel together, getting to know one another better as they float down the river. Huck is revealed often as thinking “what a nice guy Jim is . . . for a N.” (Clue: politically incorrect term that starts with N and ends with IGGER). But by the time we reach the conclusion of the book, that last part seems to disappear from Huck’s thought patterns as he realizes Jim is a person who need not be categorized in any way at all – and that’s perhaps the lesson we need to derive from this Mark Twain work. The more we get to know people the less we categorize them with “for a ____.” You can fill in that blank with your own personal prejudice, don’t you think?

I had considered HUCKELBERRY FINN as a sequel to TOM SAWYER. Let it be said here and now – that’s like thinking it was a mere step between Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk in 1903 to the Apollo 11 Moon Landing in 1969.

Read them both – I’m curious to know if you agree.