Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain [Revisited]

(Book Review)

Why I'm Reviewing this Book
I've actually read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer once before, in 6th grade, so this review counts as a re-read.

 According to the rules I set for myself on this book review project, I generally only review books that I'm reading for the first time.  Books that I re-read don't get full reviews on this blog.  (This is partly to give myself a break from having to review every single thing I read, and partly because when I do re-visit an old book, I tend to either do it by audio book, or just dip in and out of it rather than read it straight through.)

Thus far, I've broken this rule twice.  I reviewed The Three Musketeers, a book that I had already read in childhood, because I wanted to set my thoughts down on the original before I went on to review the sequels. And also Kidnapped, for the same reason (I wanted to set down my thoughts on Kidnapped before moving onto the sequel.)

And (surprise) my reason for re-reading and reviewing Tom Sawyer are the same.  I want to set down my thoughts on Tom Sawyer before I get around to reading and reviewing  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the other books in the Tom Sawyer series, which I will be reading for the first time.

My History With this Book/Series
In elementary school, I read simplified versions of both Tom Sawyer  and Huckleberry Finn.  So I've been familiar with the plots of both books since about 3rd grade (or, depending on how you want to look at it, I've had the plots spoiled for me since that time.)

Furthermore, like everyone else in the world, I have seen this story done to death on movies and television.  I must have seen that white wash scene performed hundreds of times before I even finished elementary school.  So I had thoroughly engraved on my brain Tom and Huckleberry Finn rafting down the river, Becky Thatcher, Injun Joe and the dark cave, and most of the rest of it.

But in 6th grade, I decided to try reading Mark Twain's original text of Tom Sawyer.  And I found it surprisingly delightful.  Even as a 6th grader, with my literary senses still undeveloped, I found it an easy read.  And it was funny.  (I still remember chuckling over many of the scenes, like Tom Sawyer feeding painkiller to the cat, or Tom Sawyer embarrassing himself in Sunday School.)  And it was fun, and adventurous, and quick moving.

So I decided to move onto the spin-off book: Huckleberry Finn.

[Sidenote:  I always thought it was really cool that Mark Twain managed to take Huckleberry Finn, originally a supporting character in Tom Sawyer, and spin him off into his own book.  And not only that, but then manage to get both books accepted into the canon of Western Literature Classics.  It would be like if Shakespeare had spun Horatio off into his own separate play, or if Miguel de Cervantes had spun Sancho off into his own book, and then had this new play/book become just as much a household name as the original Hamlet/ Don Quixote.]

However, despite my general fascination with the idea of the inter-related novels of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, I found the actual reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be hard going.  I got a bit bored with Huckleberry Finn and Jim going on their river journey that seemed to never end, and I lost patience with the descriptions of the Mississippi River.  So I gave up on it.

Why I'm Returning to this Series

In the years since, however, I've always regretted that I never stuck with Huckleberry Finn.  Especially since Huckleberry Finn (and not Tom Sawyer) is the book that all the literary critics always gush over.  In fact Huckleberry Finn  is often referred to as the greatest American novel of all time. (Not even  kidding--go ahead and Google search Great American Novel.  There's no consensus, of course, but Huckleberry Finn seems to pop up the most..)

I've also been vaguely aware ever since childhood of some of the other further sequels in the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn canon.  (Although I never read it, Tom Sawyer Detective was in my grandmother's attic, and I flipped through it occasionally.)
I'm enough of a continuity geek that I like the idea of getting into a series and reading the whole thing through, and seeing how all the books fit together.   So I've always kind of wanted to go back and read all the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn books from first to last.

I've especially been interested in going back to these books since I re-discovered Mark Twain a few years back, and remembered what a wonderful author he was.  Back in 2006 I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Pudd'nhead Wilson, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

In fact, in my review of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, I admonished myself to read more Mark Twain.  ("Note to self: read more Mark Twain," I wrote.)
...That was all the way back on January 17, 2007--8 years ago now!  Wow it is scary how time gets away from you!   I had every intention of carrying on with Mark Twain as soon as I finished A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and all of a sudden 8 years have flown by and I haven't read anything further by him.

But, the other day I was in a bookstore, and I saw cheap reprints of all the Tom Sawyer books available: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of course, but also the lesser known Tom Sawyer Detective and Tom Sawyer Abroad.
And I thought: "This is it!  This is the year that I'm finally going to sit down and read this whole series straight through."

Although I had already read it once, I decided to start out by re-reading Tom Sawyer.  6th grade was a long time ago now, and the memory does fade somewhat after 25 years.  Plus, I wanted to have Tom Sawyer fresh in my mind when I started Huckleberry Finn so that I could catch all the connections.

My Review of Tom Sawyer After Re-Reading It

I remember this book as being an easy and painless read when I was in 6th grade, and I am delighted to find out 25 years later that my opinion is unchanged--it's still an easy and painless read.

[Sidenote: It's a source of fascination to me how some old books age better than others.  A lot of 19th Century classic books are hard to read nowadays--even 19th Century children's books.  The prose style is antiquated, the plotting and pacing are slower, the descriptions are generally longer, et cetera.  For example I mentioned in my review of The Black Arrow: "Although originally published as a boy’s adventure story back in 1888, like a lot of Victorian Era children’s stories the prose style is now slightly antiquated, and it’s no longer accessible for most of it’s target audience."  Fair enough.  Everyone knows that language and narrative styles change over time.  Which is why Chaucer is completely inaccessibly, Shakespeare is a struggle, and Victorian era books feel a bit old and stuffy.
But then, how do you explain the exceptions?  How do you explain that every once and a while, you come across a 19th Century book that feels so fresh and modern it could have been written yesterday?]

Tom Sawyer was written in 1876, but it really has aged remarkably well.  With few adjustments it could easily pass for modern fiction.  Add this book to my list of Classic Books which are Actually Fun to Read.

There's no real plot to Tom Sawyer.  It's just a series of stories.  Some of the stories are about little adventures Tom Sawyer goes on (the adventure in the dark cave, or running away to the island) and some of them are just about the various troubles Tom causes (feeding pain killer to the cat, fighting with other boys) and some of them are just descriptions of Tom's experiences of daily life in a small town (Sunday morning at church, or Monday morning in the school house).
 (In the preface to Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wrote: "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 in it will be shot", but this introduction could just as easily be applied to Tom Sawyer.  In fact it's probably more true of Tom Sawyer.)
For the most part, the episodic nature of Tom Sawyer works very well.  Mark Twain seems to excel in short humorous episodes, and the reader never has to wait very long between set-up and pay-off.   My only complaint is that the book repeats a bit.   There's not one, but three episodes in which the whole town thinks that either Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn is dead, and goes into mourning.  (This is just in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer alone, and not even counting when Huck Finn fakes his death in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)

I'm not sure that Tom Sawyer is entirely consistent as a character.  In some of the stories, he's incredibly brilliant and cunning (like when he tricks all the boys of the town into whitewashing the fence for him).  But in other stories, he's incredibly naive and foolish (like the way he allows himself to stumble into his Aunt's verbal traps.)
But on the other hand, perhaps this sort of inconsistency--alternating between incredible sophistication and incredible foolishness-- is just what children are like in real life.
At any rate, the Tom Sawyer in this book may be inconsistent, but he's a fully dynamic character.
(Unfortunately in the sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer's characterization loses this roundness, and he becomes instead a one-note-gag character.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer's only characterization is that he is a committed fantasist.  But I'll get to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my next review.)

Other Notes and Addenda

The narration
Tom's adventures are in themselves pretty humorous, but the way the narrator is constantly inserting himself into the book to comment on what's going on is an added pleasure.  One of several examples is when describing Sunday morning church service:

"The congregation being fully assembled now, the bell rang once more, to warn laggards and stragglers, and then a solemn hush fell upon the church, which was only broken by the tittering and whispering of the choir in the gallery.  The choir always uttered and whispered all through service.  There was once a church choir that was not ill-bred, but I have forgotten where it was now.  It was a great many years ago, and I can scarcely remember anything about it, but I think it was in some foreign country" (from Chapter 5)

Mark Twain the acidic literary critic also inserts himself into the book at times, and most of Chapter 22 is devoted to making fun of a book entitled "Prose and Poetry, by a Western Lady."

The Relationship Between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Reading this book, I was reminded of  The Way of the Kings.   Or at least, I was reminded of the translator's introduction to The Way of the Kings, in which she pointed out that one of the characters represented someone trying to break free from society's constraints, where another character (the one lost in the jungle) represented someone who had already completely severed himself from all of society's rules.

The relationship between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is similar here.  Although I don't get any credit for noticing this, since the narrator pretty much spells it all out explicitly:

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.  Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags.  His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim; his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly down to his heels, and had the rearward buttons far down the back; but one suspender supported his trousers; the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing; the fringed legs dragged in the dirt when not rolled up.  Huckleberry came and went at his own free will.  He slept on door-steps in fine weather, and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master, or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully.  In a word, everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had.  So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St Petersburg. (Chapter 6.  Sidenote:  It's characteristic of the subtle ironic narration in this book that the narrator never has to mention that from an adult perspective Huckleberry Finn's poverty is much to be pitied.  The narrator just mentions all the reasons the other boys envied Huckleberry Finn, and leaves the adult perspective to be filled in by the reader's minds.)

So, when Tom Sawyer, Joe Harper, and Huck Finn run away from home to be pirates, Huckleberry Finn is the only one comfortable falling asleep without saying his prayers.  Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper, even though they have left the control of their respective guardians, still feel like they need to say their prayers or they will be hit with lightening.  Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper also have trouble sleeping because of their guilt over having stolen food, while Huckleberry Finn slept "the sleep of the conscience-free and the weary" (Chapter 13).

It's interesting, however, that in the sequel book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this dynamic is completely reversed.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck Finn is always comparing himself to Tom Sawyer, and regretting that he doesn't have the courage and daring that Tom Sawyer does.
(Although ... maybe there is some precedence for this reversal in this first book.  Tom Sawyer is the only one of  the two boys who had the courage to testify at Muff Potter's trial.)

Joe Harper
Joe Harper, who I mentioned above, never became half as famous as Huck Finn, but he appears in many of Tom Sawyer's adventures in the early parts of the book.  He is more or less an identical copy of Tom Sawyer, having exactly the same ideas, and getting into exactly the same troubles.  When Tom Sawyer plays hooky from school and goes into the woods, he meets Joe Harper there doing the same thing.  When Tom Sawyer decides to run away from home, he meets Joe Harper, who is already planning the exact same thing.  Perhaps Joe Harper is not quite so clever or creative as Tom Sawyer, but he does have exactly the same interests, and causes exactly the same mischief.
I took Joe Harper's character to indicate that Mark Twain never meant to set up Tom Sawyer as particularly unique, but rather that Tom Sawyer's character was meant to be representative of all boys of a certain age.

This Book's Status as Historical Fiction
The book was written in 1876, but it's meant to take place during the time of Mark Twain's own childhood (1840s-1850s) and so recreates a world that no longer existed at the time of writing, and is technically a form of historical fiction.
In the preface to Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain wrote: "Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine.  Huck Finn is drawn from real life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual: he is a combination of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture.
The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves in the West at the period of this story; that is to say, thirty or forty years ago."
Mark Twain further goes on to say:  "part of my plan has been to try to remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in."

As such, the book stands as an interesting chronicle of childhood from a time now long gone.
For example, one of many little interesting details is all the treasured possessions the boys collect.  This is a theme all throughout the book, but to take one incident, after the white washing incident, the narrator details all the toys Tom Sawyer had collected from his playmate: "By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with; and so on, and so on, hour after hour.  And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.  He had, besides the things I have mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a Jew's harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool-cannon, a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar--but no dog--the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange peel, and a dilapidated old window-sash" (From Chapter 2).

It all sounds a bit odd to be considered treasures, but then, in the days before every toy was mass-produced out of a factory and tied into some movie or cartoon TV show, what did little boys amuse themselves with?
Occasionally one gets the feeling that Mark Twain is exaggerating stuff for humorous effect.  Did children in the 1840s really collect dead rats on strings?  Wasn't that pretty unsanitary?
...And yet, if I push my childhood memories, I can recall a certain boyhood fascination with the bodies of dead animals.  (And in fact I remember an incident when my younger brother, at about Tom Sawyer's age, once found a dead chipmunk, which he hid inside our closet, until the dog found it and started retrieving the chipmunk bones to chew on.)

I'm not going to get into trying to sparse what is authentic and what is exaggerated in Tom Sawyer.  I wouldn't have the expertise for one thing.  But there's tons of commentaries for Tom Sawyer out there already which tackle this question.
(The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are to American literature what Shakespeare is to British literature, in that they've been written about and analyzed to death over the years, and it's impossible to find anything new to say that hasn't been said before.  Which I suppose makes my whole review here pretty superflous, but anyway...)

There are also a few little interesting details about slavery in this period that pop up in the book.  For example, when Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are frightened by a howling dog, Tom Sawyer looks out and recognizes the dog as ''Bull Harbison".  A footnote by Mark Twain adds some detail that is unnecessary to the narrative, but very revealing about the culture of the time: "If Mr Harbison had owned a slave named Bull, Tom would  have spoken of him as 'Harbison's Bull'; but a son or a dog of that name was Bull Harbison" (Author's footnote from Chapter 10).
And yet, from the perspective of a modern reader, the injustices of slavery during this period mostly feels overlooked.  Sure, there's a comment here and there (as quoted above), but a modern reader would expect condemnation of slavery to get much more attention.  (Slavery of course is a much more central piece of the narrative in the following book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but even during this story of a runaway slave, the real horrifying cruelty of the system never really seems to catch author's attention for long.)

Could it be that a full-on anti-slavery novel like Uncle Tom's Cabin could only be written by a Northerner?  Perhaps for someone who grew up in the South, slavery was so much of an every day occurrence that they got used to it, and never learned to be horrified by it?  (I don't know, I'm just thinking out loud here.)

Tom Sawyer and the Lost Childhood of the Modern World
 It's cliche to talk about Tom Sawyer and bring up the loss of childhood in the modern world.  I know it.
But, like many cliches, it's cliche for a reason...you can't help it.  Reading this book forces you to think how much childhood has changed.  Specifically, you can't help but notice how much of Tom Sawyer's childhood is spent outdoors, and contrast that with how much modern childhood is now an exclusively indoors phenomenon.
Instead of spending all his time inside watching cartoons or playing video games, Tom Sawyer is always outside fishing, or swimming, or playing Robin Hood in the woods with his friends, or rafting down the river, or exploring caves....
And it's not just that childhood recreations have changed since the 19th century.  Reading this book you get the feeling of a whole societal loss of connection to the outdoors.  For example, Tom Sawyer and his classmates actually walked to school!  And they walked home again after school.  Does anyone know any children in North America who actually walk to their schools these days?
Or here's another little detail that made me sigh a bit: in church, Aunt Polly makes sure that Tom is always sitting next to the aisle-- "Tom being placed next the aisle, in order that he might be as far away from the open window and the seductive outside summer scenes as possible" (Chapter 5).
I have childhood memories of squirming uncomfortably in Church as well, but it wasn't the seductive outside summer scenes that I was longing for, it was wanting to get back home and play video games.  Another modern childhood wasted in front of a TV screen!
But even more than that, there were no seductive outside summer scenes in my church.  The church was air conditioned, what few windows there were, were always closed up, and it was all walls and brick and mortar.  And even if there had been an outside view, all we would have seen outside the church was a gigantic parking lot anyway.  It makes you long for these old churches with no air-conditioning and open windows and the seductive outside summer scenes.
(All that being said though, lest I let my romanticism run away with me, I should remind myself that it's only possible to romanticize nature in temperate climates.  Mark Twain and his characters all grew up in Missouri.  If they had grown up in Michigan, no doubt Tom Sawyer would have spent a significant amount of the year cooped up indoors, no matter what century he lived in).

On the Other Hand...
On the other hand, there are plenty of little details in these books that definitely fall into the: the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same variety.  For example, Aunt Polly's fascination with health magazines seems to describe exactly the health advice one finds on many Internet websites these days:
She was a subscriber for all the "Health" periodicals and phrenological frauds; and the solemn ignorance they were inflated with was breath to her nostrils.  All the rot they contained about ventilation, and how to go to bed, and how to get up, and what to eat, and what to drink, and how much exercise to take, and what frame of mind to keep oneself in, and what sort of clothing to wear, was all gospel to her, and she never observed that her health journals of the current month customarily upset everything that had been recommended the month before.  (from Chapter 12).

Also in the human-nature-never-really-changes category is an incident in the sequel book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck comes across a girl completely fascinated with black colors and poetry about death, and one can't help but think of the modern goth teenagers.

Another big theme of the book is superstition.  And this is really huge in this book.  Not only is Tom Sawyer constantly making references to various superstitions all throughout the book, at some points Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn spend several pages debating the truths of various superstitions.

Apparently this is all based on real life.  In the author's introduction, Twain writes: "The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves in the West at the period of this story."

It's interesting how strongly Tom Sawyer believed in these silly childhood superstitions, but it made me remember my own childhood as well.
Take for example, this passage.
He [Tom]  went to a rotten log near at hard, and began to dig under one end of it with his Barlow knife.  He soon struck wood that sounded hollow.  He put his hand there and uttered this incantation impressively:
"What hasn't come here, come!  What's here, stay here!"
Then he scraped away the dirt, and exposed a pine shingle.  He took it up and disclosed a shapely little treasure-house whose bottom and sides were of shingles.   In it lay a marble.  Tom's astonishment was boundless.  He scratched his head with a perplexed air, and said:
"Well that beats anything!"
Then he tossed the marble away pettishly, and stood cogitating.  The truth was, that a superstition of his had failed here, which he and all his comrades had always looked upon as infallible.   If you buried a marble with certain necessary incantations, and left it alone a fortnight, and then opened the place with the incantation he had just used, you would find that all the marbles you had ever lost had gathered themselves together there, meantime, no matter how widely they had been separated.  But now this thing had actually and unquestionably failed.  Tom's whole structure of faith was shaken to its foundations.  He had many a time heard of this thing succeeding, but never of its failing before.... (Chapter 8).

 I'm sure everyone who reads this book is immediately reminded of all the childish superstitions and crazy beliefs that sometimes went around the playground in their school days.  I was certainly thought of a couple, and how strongly I believed in some of them.  (I remember once my grandfather went through great effort to try to talk me out of one particular crazy idea that was popular on the school playground, but it was no use.  Everyone else on the playground believed it, so I knew there had to be something to it. )
I suppose it should be no surprise that children are naturally credulous.  Children come into this world knowing nothing, and have to be told everything.  And  because the real world is often just as strange as the fantasy, it's no wonder children will believe one as easily as another.  And this is how these crazy beliefs and superstitions fly so readily around the school yard.

The issue gets a bit more sticky, however, when Mark Twain attributes these superstitions to children and slaves.  Which a modern reader will balk at, because it seems to put slaves on the same cognitive level as children.
Superstition does exists in the adult world  as well, of course, (I saw plenty of it in Cambodia) but it's a much more complex topic.  Since slaves play very little part in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (they are occasionally referenced as authorities on superstition, but are mostly kept off-camera), I'll just leave that can of worms un-opened for now, and move on to the next topic.

Injun Joe
 I want to continue to say good things about this book, but, unfortunately, in addition to everything else, there's racism in this book as well.

Injun Joe is the villain of this book.  Which in and of itself doesn't prove racism (an Indian can be a bad guy just as easily as a white man), but the narration unfortunately repeatedly implies that Injun Joe is evil because of  his Indian blood.  (And plus, even the very name Injun Joe...)

 It surprised me that Mark Twain had written this, because in Pudd'nhead Wilson, Mark Twain appeared to have a very forward thinking view on racial identity.  (In Pudd'nhead Wilson, Mark Twain appears to be arguing that race is much more of a societal construct than it is a matter purely of bloodlines.  And this was years before this same theory would become popular with liberal academics).  Plus, Mark Twain had so eloquently spoken out against American imperialism in the Philippines.  
 So it surprised me that the portrayal of Injun Joe in Tom Sawyer was so revoltingly racist.

I guess it's strange how some people can be progressive on some issues, but have blind spots on other issues.

I'm not an expert on Mark Twain, or his views, but lots of other people are, and since Twain is the most written about American author, there are tons of articles online examining Twain's portrayal of Injun Joe.  See, for example: HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE....and many more.
Link of the Day
Telling the Truth about Imperialism

No comments: