Title: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Author: Mark Twain
Release date: December 10, 1884
Publisher: Chatto & Windus / Charles L. Webster & Co.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn picks up where The Adventures of Tom Sawyer left off. The Widow Douglas adopts Huck, and he goes to live with her and her sister, Miss Watson. But Huck isn’t taking to his new life too well; though he wants to please the Widow, he finds himself making mistakes in his new life everywhere he turns.
To make matters worse, Pap is back in town, and he wants the money Huck found in the caves with Tom. Huck doesn’t much care about the money, but he cares even less about reuniting with his father.
After failing miserably at cleaning up his life, Pap decides to kidnap Huck and lock him in a cabin across the river from St. Petersburg. Huck quickly tires of Pap’s drunken beatings, so he fakes his own death and sets off for Jackson’s Island in the middle of the river.
But Huck isn’t the only runaway on the island. Jim, one of Miss Watson’s slaves, escaped after overhearing that he would be sold without his family to a large plantation owner. Huck and Jim join forces and begin rafting down the river toward freedom.
They float leisurely along, passing small, quaint towns and encountering robbers and con artists along the way. When the con artists go so far as to sell Jim to a farmer, Huck decides to rescue him, despite Huck’s certainty that the Widow and God—both of whom seem equally threatening to the boy—would be angry at him for stealing.
But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. When Huck arrives at the farmer’s house to case the joint, he is mistaken for his friend Tom Sawyer by Jim’s new owners: Tom’s aunt and uncle, Silas and Sally Phelps. Tom was on his way for a family visit. Huck seizes the opportunity to get closer to Jim, and he falls easily into pretending to be his friend. Huck then intercepts the real Tom and explains the situation; Tom, of course, eagerly agrees that they should work up a plan to free Jim, and he begins masquerading as his younger brother, Sid.
But Tom isn’t satisfied with Huck’s simple plan to free the slave, and he begins dreaming up ways to really complicate things. And so the three set off on a wild adventure that ends, of course, quite unexpectedly.
Twain is an inimitable storyteller. Though this book was intended for young adults, Twain’s clever jokes and satirical take on serious issues made it a very enjoyable read as an adult.
Twain allows Huck to speak in a fully believable dialect throughout the narrative, not just the dialogue. I highly recommend listening to this on audiobook. My love for audiobooks took root long ago; my mother would read books to us as children, and she would affect the voices and accents of each character. Huck Finn would have been a great choice for these reading sessions; Huck’s peculiar way of speaking—and, in a larger sense, of seeing and interacting with the world outside of his small town—can be uproariously funny and deeply endearing.
Huck Finn is a tribute to an era that had almost completely disappeared by Twain’s time, if it had existed at all. The idea of Twain reinventing or inventing this rugged but decidedly rosy version of the culture that sprang up around the Mississippi a full generation later—and being lauded as the writer who finally understood the true character of the people surrounding the river—is fascinating, and I hope to learn more about it in the next book on my list, Wicked River: The Mississippi When Last It Ran Wild.
Twain faces issues of race and class head-on. Huck feels shamed at his low origins and his forced association with Pap; guilt about helping Jim to freedom; and obligation to defer to the two frauds they meet along the way. Huck believes that he is past fixing, that his immoral habits are too deeply entrenched, when in fact Huck is probably the best person in the book.
Although the “n” word is used often, I was rarely bothered by it; I knew that it was being used to show the hypocrisy of judging another by race or class. I was stunned to hear of a recent edition of the book that would replace the word with “slave,” thus creating such conflicting sentences as: “There was a free slave there from Ohio. . .” No wonder kids think classics are confusing!
Though I understand the controversy—I was very uncomfortable with the racial slurs in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (my review here)—I think that replacing the “n” word will radically alter the book’s pro-equality message. Reading or hearing offensive names is painful, but readers need to be reminded that history is painful. Huck Finn is the perfect reminder: hilarious yet critical, entertaining yet thought-provoking.
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