Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1884-5)

This may be one of the most reviewed books in the history of people like me reviewing books.  In fact, entire books have been written to review this book.  Then you have to review those books, and it just never ends.

So I'm not going to fester on this.  I'm mainly interested in how well it stands up to modern readers, which I have mixed feelings on.  I'll go over a few things that struck me about this book.

For me to like a character, show me that character at their worst, and then show me how they redeem themselves.  Show me a character with indecision.  Show me a character doing something wrong because he believes it is right, and show me his journey.

That’s what is so noble about Huckleberry Finn.  He is a person, forget whether he himself is right or wrong, but he is a person who is determined to do something wrong – not because he wants to do something wrong but because he wants to do something right.  We are shown his personal journey and how he makes the decision for himself that what he wanted to do, he cannot do.  He ends up doing right, but he does it believing it is wrong.

Wow.  That is so powerful it bears understanding.  In a way, this book isn't about Huck, it's about the society that created him.  A society that taught him slavery is not only right, but that freeing a slave is a "damnable" offense.  Yes, he was taught that to free a slave will send you to hell.  Imagine people with such arrogance they truly believe they have that power - the power of God to determine who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.  That's it in a nutshell.

Huck honestly thought he HAD to turn his friend, Jim, over to the authorities to be returned to slavery.  He thought he had to do that or he would go to hell.  And he made the decision to go to hell instead of betraying Jim.  That is Mark Twain at his finest.  That is the bitter social satire that makes this book what it is.  You don't need to debate anything else.  This book was meant to make a statement, a condemnation of society, and that was it.

Of course, it's much longer than that.  It's a long, rambling affair that touches many different people as Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi river.  You've got your thieves and murderers, your charlatans, your feuding families, your decent people, and a few slaves here and there that we really don't get to know.  Plus there's a hatful of quirky folks, just for fun.

I have read this book countless times.  Parts of it I skip - once or twice was enough.  The part where Huck runs away, lives on the island, hangs out with Jim, and they float down the river, right up to just before they run into the charlatans, that is my favorite.  It is easy and peaceful and relaxing.  Huck and Jim, Jim and Huck, having a few adventures but mainly just taking it easy and talking about the stars and the fog and such.  I listen to that small section on audiobook to fall asleep.

After they meet the charlatans the book sort of goes downhill for me.  It's all about the people they meet, the tragic things that happen, and that crazy, mixed up ending.  Not too fond of the ending.  But it's been discussed ad nauseam by too many people so I won't go into it.

I hate what Mark Twain did to Tom Sawyer in this book.  He turned him into an idiot.  We loved him in his own book, but here he just seems wacky.  That certainly didn't follow character from what we knew about him in the previous book.

But this book is full of adventure and humor.  Some of the things Huck says make me laugh out loud.  Here's an example.  He and Jim steal food to eat, and feel guilty about it.
So we talked it over all one night, drifting along down the river, trying to make up our minds whether to drop the watermelons, or the cantelopes, or the mushmelons, or what.  But towards daylight we got it all settled satisfactory, and concluded to drop crabapples and p'simmons.  We warn't feeling just right before that, but it was all comfortable now.  I was glad the way it come out, too, because crabapples ain't ever good, and the p'simmons wouldn't be ripe for two or three months yet.
Or this classic line about stealing chickens.
Pap always said, take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don't want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain't ever forgot.  I never see pap when he didn't want the chicken himself, but that is what he used to say, anyway
But does this book stand up well to the modern reader?  No.  Not in its entirety.  Sure, it's one of my favorite books, but I completely understand people being bored with it.  Plus, I completely understand why people don't like reading the "N" word all through it.  What if it were the "F" word?  Adults, we get it.  But more impressionable, younger people might not know what to think, and so it would turn them off.

And that darn vernacular!  Mark Twain was a master of the various accents in the midwest and south.  He explains in the preface that he is using several different dialects, and states,
"I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding."
That may be all good and fun, but it's so hard to read!  When Jim speaks, I completely understand that's how he would have spoken, but reading it is tedious.  It was such a relief when I got the audiobook and someone else did the reading for me.  It all made sense, and everything he said flowed smoothly.  But for modern readers, it is difficult to wade through.  I wonder if Mark Twain felt it was tedious just writing it.  Also, remember that the entire book is narrated first person by Huck Finn, and that in itself adds to the reading difficulty because it's written in the vernacular.

Either way, I will continue to read it.  Huck Finn stands out from the crowd.  It describes that quintessential easy life of floating down the river, taking life one day at a time, and just lying on your back looking up at the stars.

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