Saturday, June 22, 2013

Book Review: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun story with a great lesson in equality
Cons: Use of the N word, more episodic than a true novel.
The Bottom Line
Float down a river
And see everyone's human
In classic novel

Float on Down the River with Huck and Jim

Mark Twain opened his classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a notice.  "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot."  I'm now going to run a great risk and ignore all of those as I review this book.

Okay, actually, the warning about the plot is pretty easy to avoid.  After all, it is really a series of very loosely related events and not a plot in the sense we think of them today.  The story picks up pretty much where Adventures of Tom Sawyer left the characters.  Huckleberry Finn is living in Hannibal, Missouri, and trying to adjust to being "civilized" by the Widow Douglas who has taken the young teen off the streets since his pappy is nowhere to be found.  But then Pappy shows up, and Huck fakes his own death to escape from the abusive drunk.

In my mind, the book really gets rolling when Huck and runaway slave Jim take to the raft down the Mississippi River.  Even then, it's episodic in nature as they get caught up in a feud and harbor two con men, the King and the Duke.  In the final part of the novel, Tom Sawyer makes a reappearance and helps Huck free Jim, who is being held as a runaway slave on Tom's uncle and aunt's farm in Arkansas.

I'm a bit baffled why this book interests me more than Tom Sawyer since both are really a collection of short stories held together by the thinnest of narrative devices.  Really, it could have been posted as a series of short stories or novellas with little to no difference in understanding.

But most people who have a complaint with the story complain about the "climax," or as I view it the final episode.  Once I adjust to the amazing coincidence that Jim is being held by Tom's aunt and uncle, I enjoy this part of the book the most.  The elaborate plan that Tom insists they have to use to rescue Jim is hilarious.  And his reaction to Huck when Huck comes up with the logical, simple way to do things is funny.  Tom is being influenced by all the books he's read and is having so much fun finally living his fantasy of a real adventure I can't help but love it.

What I think appeals to me most is the idea of rafting down the Mississippi care free.  Twain paints such an idyllic picture of Huck and Jim's time on the raft between episodes that it makes me want to try this trip myself today.  Or at least see the Mississippi for myself.  Someday.  If you aren't as captivated by water and boating as I am, this part of the book will be slow and it will probably make the novel seem boring.  Personally, I love getting caught in their world.

I had forgotten just how much dialect Mark Twain used when writing this book.  Huckleberry has had limited schooling, so his grammar is far from perfect.  Since he narrates the book first person, that's reflected the entire way through the story.  Where I struggle more is with the characters who have thick accents.  At times, a few of the characters are also impossible to understand as Twain attempts to capture their accent and lack of education.  Sadly, one of those people is Jim, although he seems easier to understand at some parts and almost impossible at others.  In my mind, this is the most significant flaw of the book.

Outside of Huck and Jim, few characters are around enough to truly develop.  Jim and Huck are very real people, however, and I feel like I know them by the time I'm done reading the book.

The Controversy

This book is frequently challenged (even,  or should I say especially, by teachers) and even removed from libraries and schools because Twain uses the "N" word when referring to the slaves that populate the story.  Frankly, this frustrates me for multiple reasons.  First of all, the term was the term that was used when the book was written (1870's) and more important the correct term when the book was set (1840's).  I fully recognize that it is a hateful term, but I think this is a time where teachers can show how bad things used to be and where we are now in race relations.  (Frankly, the fact that teachers have challenged this book makes me wonder about those people as teachers.)  And the fact that the word still shows up in today's music makes me wonder why this word is enough to get a book removed when other classics have plenty of swear words in them.  (I'm looking at you, Grapes of Wrath, which would get an R rating just from language if it were adopted into a faithful movie.)

As I said earlier, Jim and Huck are the only two characters who truly get developed over the course of the book.  And the thing that amazes Huck as the story continues is when he realizes that Jim is a human just like him.  There's a passage where Jim is describing something that happened with his daughter that is heartbreaking and really makes Huck think.  And, while Jim spends most of the episodes off the raft waiting for Huck to return (so he's not captured as a runaway slave), he winds up setting the wheels in motion to give two characters their well-deserved comeuppance.

It could even be argued that the only real plot in the book is Huck's struggle with himself over his growing friendship with Jim.  Every so often, he struggles with the fact that he is helping a slave escape.  And the climax comes when he debates what to do when Jim is captured.  Finally, he decides that he wasn't made to be good so is going to live a life of sin, starting with breaking Jim out of captivity.  His resignation that this will send him to hell (something I would actually argue against, but for that time, that was what was taught), is a powerful statement and shows just how much Huck has come to view Jim as a human and not a piece of property.

I wouldn't be surprised to find that Twain was actually using this "boy's adventure story" to subtly work on race relations.  And the fact that we let the use of the correct term for the time blind us to the subtlety of his work infuriates me (as you may have noticed).

So I challenge you to pick up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  If you can look past a dated (and I will say again) hateful term, you'll find a fun series of stories and two great characters.

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