Once again, a giant THANK YOU to everyone who voted in my poll last week!
You voted for Huckleberry Finn – so I spent all of last week frantically reading it – all 378 pages. Yep, imagine me, sprawled on a towel by the side of my sister-in-law’s pool on Australia Day, reading what many consider the Great American Novel to the strains of “Marco?” and “POLO!”. Not very Australian of me, I know. If it helps, Jimmy Barnes was playing in the background. Honest.
It was a great day. And, as a sidenote: my lovely orange Popular Penguins copy of Huckleberry Finn now smells strangely like sunscreen and chlorine.
My resident techie husband tells me that my blog is getting quite a few new visitors lately. So, for anyone new to Book to the Future, hello! Let me explain how this blog works:
Book to the Future started in April last year, when I read The Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. Every week after that, I’ve moved forward in time one year every week, reading and reviewing books.
But every ten years…err…weeks, I do something a little different. I read a book published before the 1900s. First it was Oliver Twist, then The Picture of Dorian Gray…and now, thanks to the everyone who voted, Huckleberry Finn.
Okay. Strap yourself in, folks. Here’s this week’s review:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain
Published in 1884
Huckleberry Finn is an amazing, frustrating book. Yes, both at once. I finished reading Huckleberry Finn two days ago, and it’s left me with a strange mixture of awe and intense disappointment. Yes, it’s beautiful, yes, it’s powerful – but there’s one essential flaw that will leave you wanting to throw this book from the nearest window in disgust.
Huckleberry Finn, an intelligent, yet troublesome child, has been adopted by a widow determined to “sivilize” him. Huck is rich after his adventures with Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (don’t worry, there’s no need to have read Tom Sawyer to enjoy Huckleberry Finn). But this makes no difference to Huck – all he wants is to smoke and to swear and not be forced into stiff, clean clothes. There’s no taming this wild child.
To make matters worse, Huck’s drunkard dad turns up, intent on getting his hands on Huck’s fortune. He takes Huck away to live with him, and Huck can do whatever he likes…but he’s also subjected to his father’s constant physical abuse, and locked up on his own for days on end. So Huck fakes his own death and escapes from both his father, and the widow at once, setting off on a raft down the Mississippi.
But Huck quickly realises that he’s being followed. The newcomer is Jim, a negro, who’s run away after overhearing word of his impending sale. Both on the run, the slave and the child quickly form a bond, setting off on a series of amazing adventures. But when Huck learns that Jim has a price on his head, will he have the courage to stand by his friend? After all, Jim is someone else’s property, and helping him escape is wrong…isn’t it?
On his journey downriver, Huck learns for himself that sometimes, what society tells you and what your conscience tells you can be two very different things.
As I said earlier, there’s one major flaw with Huckleberry Finn. More about that later. I want to tell you all of the good things about this novel first. Because there’s one very special thing about this book that makes it totally unique: its enthralling voice.
Huckleberry Finn reads like a textbook on narrative voice. From the very first sentence, I was under its spell:
“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.” (pg. 1)
Huckleberry Finn is written entirely in Huck’s distinctive southern American dialect, which comes through with such perfect clarity that I found it difficult to stop myself from reading out loud. And then there’s the way each character speaks in a voice of their own. Jim’s voice has a particularly musical quality to it. You can practically hear his voice as he speaks:
“Well, when it come dark I tuck out up de river road, en went ’bout two mile er more to whah deh warn’t no houses. I’d made up my mine ’bout what I’s agwyne to do. You see ef I kep’ on tryin’ to git away afoot, de dogs ‘ud track me; ef I stole a skift to cross over, dey’d miss dad skift, you see, en dey’d know ’bout what I’d lan’ on de yuther side en whah to pick up my track. So I says, a raff is what I’s arter; it doan’ make no track” (pg. 57)
As a character, Jim is just as intriguing as Huck himself. Okay, sometimes he comes across as a racial stereotype, driven largely by superstition. But on the other hand, Twain allows us glimpses of a man – not a slave – tortured by the distance between him and his wife and children. Jim treats Huck as if he were his own child. In spite of everything he’s been through, Jim has a heart full of love. While Huckleberry Finn might be Huck’s tale in name, it’s equally Jim’s story.
Together, Huck and Jim are constantly on the run down the Mississippi, a no-man’s land that forms the boundary between states – and is a kind of paradise for these two (literally) marginalised characters:
“It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened…” (pg. 154)
It’s during these idyllic scenes that Mark Twain’s writing is powerful enough to knock the breath from your lungs. Honestly. It’s astounding.
In so many ways, Huckleberry Finn is perfect. But there’s one giant flaw that nearly brings the whole book crashing down.
It’s the ending.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to give away what happens. But let me just say that this book comes so close to perfection, before it’s let down by an ending that feels totally unnatural. It’s almost heartbreaking to read. I was disappointed to the point of wanting to throw poor Huckleberry Finn across the room.
(Don’t think I’m bluffing – I’ve thrown books before. This was very nearly one of them.)
It’s not all bad news. Mark Twain very nearly redeems himself with the book’s final few pages. The book finishes on a promise of future adventures; on a sweet, enduring note of freedom.
Huckleberry Finn is the story of a black man and a white boy, two outcasts, finding their way to freedom. Which is why it makes me so incredibly angry that someone, somewhere thinks it’s appropriate to change a certain word in the text to slave – a word that’s possibly even more offensive than the word it’s replacing.
Change that word to whatever you like, if you must – just don’t make Jim a slave. He deserves better than that.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Huckleberry Finn needs to be read – just the way it is. Okay, so the ending is complete pants, but it’s just one flaw in what is otherwise a perfect tale, told in one of the most memorable voices in all of literature.
In a word: