The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Whenever someone spouts the platitude, “the original is always better than the sequel,” this is one counter-example that could definitely be shoved in his or her face. That’s not to disparage “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but this book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is the better and more profound story. [Lest you think that’s just my opinion, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who holds a contrary view.]
The book begins with Huck Finn in a comfort zone that has become stifling and boring, but is – basically – a pretty good life. Huck has more money in the bank than he could hope to spend, owing to his past adventures with Tom Sawyer, and he’s being put up by the widow Douglas, a kindly old woman who struggles to make Finn a more genteel and educated variety of boy. While Huck appreciates the widow, he’s becoming antsy and perpetually feels his failings to take to the moral lessons being taught to him. Huck’s internal moral conflict is central to the story, particularly the recurring conflict between what he has been taught is the proper thing to do with respect to runaway slaves, and what he feels is the right thing vis-à-vis his friendship with the escaped slave, Jim.
The trigger that sends Huck into adventure mode from this status quo is the return of his drunken and abusive father, a man who has come to town solely because he heard about the money Huck has sitting in the bank and who wants to get his hands on it to keep himself in booze. Before Huck’s father can get to him and clear out his bank account, Huck sells his stake in the money for a dollar to a prestigious townsman who’s been looking out for him. This draws out the affair, and for a time Huck is living under the thumb of his alcoholic father. When this becomes untenable, Huck fakes his own death and strikes out on the river. On an uninhabited island, he meets up with Jim, a slave who has runaway after hearing that his owner, Miss Watson, has been looking into selling him down the river (literally.)
This leads to Huck and Jim traveling together down the Mississippi River by night (to avoid the risk of Jim being seen and attracting undue attention.) They intend to come to come ashore at Cairo, Illinois being a free state where Jim might have a shot of restarting life. The problems is that running the river at night is dangerous (and sometimes foggy) and it’s easy to miss what one is looking for to stumble into something one doesn’t want. For example, their raft was run into by a steamboat, leading to Huck finding himself washed ashore in the middle of territory where a Hatfield-McCoy style family feud is playing out. And Jim and Huck do “miss their exit” and end up further down river than they would have liked – and that is safe for Jim.
There is an extended period during which a pair of con-men end up traveling with Huck and Jim, putting on shows that are not entertaining, but which they trick people into coming to in large numbers. These two men, who claim to be a Duke and a King, run various cons from town to town, the most extensive (and despicable) one involving making a claim to being the next-of-kin of a deceased man they find out about while traveling. Huck’s moral sensibilities come into play here, as well, as he can no longer tolerate the two men’s con when he sees it will seriously hurt good people. (As opposed to mildly cheating a mixed crowd of the good, the bad, and the ugly.) When one of the men sells out Jim, resulting in the runaway’s capture, Huck goes out to try to free Jim.
In what is the story’s biggest leap, it turns out that the household that has taken possession of Jim are relatives of Tom Sawyer, and they mistake Huck for Tom, who has been due to arrive any day. Of course, Huck doesn’t know who he’s been mistaken for when he arrives, and this creates some comedic gold. When the real Tom arrives, Huck intercepts him and they join together in a scam where Huck continues to be Tom and Tom pretends to be Sid (after pranking his aunt.)
Huck and Tom (“Tom” and “Sid”) take to building a plan to free Jim (despite the fact that Tom knows that Jim was already freed in Miss Watson’s will, when she passed away recently.) The challenge is that Tom insists on going all boy-Don Quixote and developing elaborate plans based on his reading of adventure stories that do not make sense, given the circumstance they face. (i.e. Preparing to extract a knight from the dungeon of a castle, instead of trying to break a man out of a little shack with nothing but a pad-lock and a chain wrapped around the cot leg – such that it could be removed by lifting the corner of the cot up.) This results in Tom gaslighting not only Jim, but also his aunt and uncle, as well as inflicting all sorts of suffering and needless tasks upon Jim. The biggest criticism of the book is probably that this gag goes on way too long, and its comedic value ultimately dwindles as it becomes painful to witness the degree to which it is torturous for Jim and other parties. Huck plays the straight-man, trying to convince Tom to give up on the more ridiculous aspects of his plans, but he fallaciously takes Tom to be his intellectual superior and thus accepts that some things may need to be tolerated. [More than that, he’s steamrolled by Tom’s domineering personality.] It’s an interesting point that Huck is dismayed that Tom is willing to help him free Jim, because Huck thinks Tom should be morally virtuous enough not to help a slave escape (Huck doesn’t know Jim has been freed, only Tom knows that.) Huck has written himself off as an immoral creature, but by any reasonable standard he is the more virtuous of the pair, by far.
It’s worth noting by way of a trigger warning, the book uses the n-word like a million times, and – while the recurring theme revolves around Huck seeing Jim’s humanity through all the indoctrination, he receives to the contrary – the boy nonetheless makes a lot of offensive comments [not to mention those by individuals who are far less evolved on the issue of race.]
This is definitely one of the best specimens of American literature. It has hilarious lines and happenings, shows how exposure to people can help one see humanity where one is being indoctrinated not to, and it has tense moments of adventure. Its dialectic first-person narration doesn’t prevent it from being readable, but makes is more fun to read as well as helps one get into the story and Huck’s character. This is definitely a must read.
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