Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.
I find it amazing how often a story heralded as a classic soon becomes divorced from any sense of what made it special in the first place. I am sure everyone is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer and can conjure up in an instant the appearance of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. The story has been filmed countless times, there was even a Soviet version in 1947, but to people of a certain age who grew up in the 80’s, I imagine this is the version you are most familiar with. What I find surprising is that my would-be ‘knowledge’, of the book is a pale and diluted imitation of Twain’s work, still full of wit and vigour.
There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always been fond of – Ich hub uuz deh gebracht which apparently is Yiddish for ‘I’m having the strongest memory’. When I started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I suddenly found myself remembering an afternoon sitting in class in a Christian Brothers school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. The teacher would sometimes read books to us, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe inspiring in me a life-long love of reading, particularly fantasy novels. On this day she read to us from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and chose the scene where Tom meets Becky Thatcher. My teacher enjoyed putting on the accents and started to imitate that high-pitched drawl common to Southern belles. Suddenly I felt my cheeks burning, my shoulders tensed and I found myself trying to squeeze beneath my desk. Strange new feelings of excitement, embarrassment and shame came over me. It was very unsettling, the sensation alien and perplexing.
It strikes to the heart of Twain’s writing, however, which is to depict the adventures of his child heroes in the American South with all the nostalgic innocence that is demanded, but also allowing for the adult intrigues and mysteries that children witness without fully understanding.
Tom Sawyer is an impulsive, yet fiercely intelligent young boy, living with his Aunt Polly, half-brother (and snitch) Sid and cousin Mary. He is forever getting into scrapes of one kind of another, fighting in the streets, or exploiting the gullibility of the other children. He runs a rapid trade in bartering marbles and curiosities. The incident with the white picket fence that occurs at the beginning of the novel is two-fold scheme of Tom’s that allows him to pocket the many odds and ends offered to him by the other boys in tribute, and fool his Aunt into thinking he has completed his punishment. He enjoys playing Robin Hood with Joe Harper. They both know the book by heart and recite each line as they trade blows. The arrival of Becky Thatcher sets Tom to wooing her, with his own particular take on ‘engagement’.
Of course Huckleberry Finn is the most well-known of Tom’s companions, who lives the kind of life that Sawyer desperately wants to lead. While he goes to school and attempts to learn Bible verses for prizes, Huck Finn wanders the town at his leisure, sleeps wherever he chooses and does not care to dress in his Sunday best. One night the boys stumble upon a sight that terrifies them, something far more horrible than anything they could have dreamt of in all their imaginary adventures as pirates on the high seas, or thieving in Sherwood Forest. The murderous Injun Joe stalks Tom’s dreams as he tries to decide what to do in this all-too-real adventure.
Twain writes in a manner that is familiar and warm, yet also cutting. Real romance and real adventure occur in childhood, everything afterwards is just an echo. His descriptions are dense, yet essential to the breezy mood. A beautiful read.