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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Stars and shadows ain't good to see by.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens)

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Huck Finn begins in Missouri with a boy who doesn't want to be "sivilized", a slave who doesn't want to be sold down the river, and a mean drunk of a father. Huck's being raised by Miss Watson and the "old widow" in St. Petersburg, Missouri. His father left town at the end of Tom Sawyer, the precursor to this novel, but he returns at the beginning of Huck Finn when he finds out Huck has come into some money. Huck's dad steals him away from the widow and Miss Watson and they go off to a little cabin by the Mississippi. Huck is mostly happy, though his father is a raging alcoholic, because Huck likes to live off the land, and enjoys catching fish for dinner and not needing to be "sivilized". After a few too many rip-roaring beatings from his dad, however, Huck hatches a plot to run away. He slaughters a pig they have taken and drags the blood everywhere to make it look like someone has come in and murdered Huck. He steals off on a raft he found a few days earlier that he has loaded up with food, and he hides out in Jackson Island. He chances upon Jim, Miss Watson's slave, who has run away because he heard Miss Watson talking about selling him down south, and the two become friends. They soon find out that Jim has been accused of killing Huck, however, and begin their escape. They plan to head to Cairo, Ohio, where Jim can buy his freedom, but realize after some time that they are, in fact, heading south. They have a series of crazy adventures along the way, including a trip onto and off of a floating house, a series of cons with the "Duke" and the "Dauphin", a run-in with a Hatfield-McCoy style family feud, and Jim's eventual capture by none other than relatives of Tom Sawyer! Huck pretends to be Tom when he realizes who they are, and when Tom arrives, he pretends to be his own brother, Sid, and they hatch a plan to help Jim escape. After hatching a ridiculous number of incredibly complex plots to help Jim escape, Tom and Huck execute a hapless plot to free Jim that ends with Jim getting recaptured and Tom getting shot in the leg. Tom and Huck's true identities are revealed, and Tom makes a full recovery, only to inform everyone that Jim has been free for two months because Miss Watson felt so bad for threatening to sell him down river that she freed him in her will. Tom and Huck head back to St. Petersburg, but Huck doubts he will stay for long, because he doesn't want to be "sivilized" again.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

-As exciting as the end of the book is, the real denouement comes when Huck realizes that he'd rather go to hell than give Jim up as a runaway slave. He feels torn for a large portion of the novel about helping Jim, as his "morality" has taught him that he should not break the law and shouldn't help a slave to run away from someone who has helped him (Huck) in the past. My ever-astute grandmother pointed this out in an email to me just a few weeks ago, saying, "Weren't you proud of Huck when he decides that even if he was to be sent to hell itself, he was not going to turn in Jim as an escaped slave? That was a heroic decision." I was, indeed, proud of Huck at that moment.

-My grandmother also asked me what I thought of the new attempts to "sanitize" Huck Finn by removing the "n-word" and replacing it with the word slave. I think we need books like Huck Finn to remind us of what our past contained. I found this book challenging to read, and after spending years asking students not to use the "n-word" in our "safe spaces" in their schools out of respect for my request not to give "permission" or "license" to people to use it who would use it in a derogatory way, it was quite hard to come across the word again and again and in the way that it was originally intended. But that difficulty that I experienced while reading is one that I think we must all continue to challenge ourselves to experience. Racism still exists; discrimination still exists; African-Americans are still facing the repercussions of slavery, and they are still working to pull themselves up socio-economically, and these are issues we CANNOT forget. If it causes us some discomfort, then good - let us lean into the discomfort, and remind ourselves that we must not forget our past and we must continue to work hard to forge the kind of future that we believe in.

-Huck is an amazing liar. He has an innate ability to prevaricate on the spot, which serves him well in various situations, like when he disguises himself as a girl (though his lie doesn't succeed in that case), or when he calls himself George Jackson when he gets caught up in the Grangerford-Sheperdson family feud, or when he becomes Tom Sawyer, his good friend, to help save Jim. At one point, he gets so caught up in his sundry disguises that he forgets his name. Ever crafty, he bets his new friend Buck that he can't spell his name, and gets him to reveal his pseudonym. (Buck's spelling needs work, though - "Yep, I can, G-E-O-R-G-E J-A-X-O-N.")

-Twain has a flair for descriptions, and says at one point that it "looked late, and smelt late." He follows up, saying, "You know what I mean - I don't know the words to put it in." I know what you mean, Mr. Clemens. There's a night smell, and a just after the rain smell, and a winter and a fall smell.

-When Huck tries to masquerade as a girl to get information on Jim's escape and where he's suspected to be hiding, Judith Loftus calls him out on his lie. She calls him out in the following summary: "You do a girl tolerable poor, but you might fool men, maybe. Bless you, child, when you set out to thread a needle don't hold the thread still and fetch the needle up to it; hold the needle still and poke the thread at it... And when you throw at a rat or anything, hitch yourself up a tip-toe and fetch your hand up over your head as awkward as you can, and miss your rat about six or seven foot... And, mind you, when a girl tries to catch anything in her lap she throws her knees apart; she don't clap them together, the way you did when you catched the lump of lead. Why, I spotted you for a boy when you was threading the needle; and I contrived the other things just to make certain." Smart lady. :0)

-Huck experiences a short-lived joy with the Grangerfords before an all-out war ensues. I loved the way Twain described the Colonel - "He was sunshine most always - I mean he made it seem like good weather."

-Tom's plans for Jim's escape are frustratingly perverse. At first, they seem comical (we must use knives instead of shovels to dig a hole under Jim's hut), then ill-advised (we must deliver Jim a pie with a rope ladder baked in it so that he can escape from his hut. which is on the ground level.), then downright infuriating (we have to tell everyone that someone is planning to help Jim escape before we actually escape with him). The irony of Jim being free to begin with is bittersweet; Jim is free, which is great, but Huck also feels validated in having questioned Tom's morality in being so willing to help free a runaway slave. (Jim was free the whole time, which Tom knew, so Tom was only willing to help because he knew Jim was free to begin with.)

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I found the plot to be a bit dull in the middle (with the Duke and the Dauphin and their various escapades) but the beginning and end were delightful.

I'm off (finally!) to lose myself in a classically circuitous canon of Russian lit, that famous favorite, Battles and Tranquility. Oh wait, that's not right, it's Combat and Restfulness. Something like that, you get the picture.

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