Summer Reading, Summer Journeys
By Lou Salza
Almost all of us are familiar with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a book we read in high school. Working on Lawrence School’s high school reading list over the summer, I re-read it, eagerly re-joining my old friends, Huck and Jim. I was 14 or so when I first hopped aboard their raft traveling along the Mississippi River. Back then I was a struggling student with many of the same difficulties our students here at Lawrence experience.
As a younger reader, I focused on the literal and surface aspects of the story line, approaching all novels as essentially exercises in understanding who did what, when, where and why. I couldn’t appreciate the nuances of tone, theme, and character or an author’s use of literal and figurative language because I did not read fast enough or fluently enough. My reading was not automatic and effortless enough to focus on the author’s meaning and purpose. I was still too busy trying to recognize the words. I remember how it felt to wrestle with print. It was exhausting and finally discouraging.
Nevertheless, I recall following Huck’s adventures with a degree of awe because he was quintessentially liberated, escaped from the etiquette and rules of conduct that he found so chafing and confining. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t smoke in the Widow Douglas’ home and he hated wearing the clothes she bought for him, saying they made him feel “all cramped up.” He disliked eating at the table where his manners were continually criticized. He resisted all attempts to “civilize” him. I was impressed that he was able to run away, fake his own death, fool the adults, and break free of the expectations and constraints normally associated with being a teenager in an adult world.
Several decades have passed since I first met Huck. I am no longer a struggling, misunderstood adolescent with a learning difference trying to get through burdensome summer reading assignments in high school or literature classes in college. Now I am the struggling, misunderstood geriatric Head of a school for students with learning differences, and this time, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was an altogether different, glorious, deeply touching, outrageously funny, and fundamentally unsettling experience.
I laughed out loud at Twain’s “notice” in the front of the book:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
Huck and Jim had not changed a bit over the years, but I surely had, and as a result, they were different people this time around. The first thing I noticed was that Huck is one of “our kids” – a non-traditional student, one who struggles to learn reading and spelling, and despite difficulties, still hasn’t given up. Huck’s description of trying to do his lessons with Miss Watson would trigger an evaluation for ADHD today:
Miss Watson . . . had just come to live with (us) and took a set at me now with a spelling book. . . . It was deadly dull and I would get fidgety. Miss Watson would say: ” Don’t put your feet up there, Huckleberry” and “Don’t scrunch up like that, Huckleberry; set up straight,” “Don’t gap and stretch like that, Huckleberry. Why don’t you try to behave?”
Mark Twain’s humor was sometimes literary, sometimes slapstick but always biting and wry and always with the purpose of surfacing and exposing veniality, double standards, duplicity, hypocrisy, and other crimes and misdemeanors of human character. In the chapter called “The Duke and the Dauphin Come Aboard,” Twain illustrates the hypocrisy of some adults, the ability of bright young people to see through it, and their perception of the need to “go along to get along”:
It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on, kept it to myself; it’s the best way, then you don’t have no quarrels and don’t get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I had no objections as long as it would keep peace in the family . . .
As a young reader I focused more on the humor and hijinx of the novel. I did not remember how serious a story this book tells or the intense moral decision-making at its heart.
Jim is a runaway slave whose only motivation is to keep his family together. He runs because he learns he is to be sold away from his wife and children. He is also the only character in the book who doesn’t lie. Huck is torn by his duty to obey the law of the land and return Jim to his owner and his respect for Jim as a human being and a friend.
Huck feels a personal obligation to Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas because he knows that these adults have his best interests at heart, even if he can’t stand to be controlled by them in their homes and in school. On the other hand, when he tried to harden his heart against Jim in order to turn him in,
. . . I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I come back out of the fog, . . . and would always call me honey, and do everything he could think of for me . . .
In the end, Huck resolves his conflict by deciding he will accept the eternal damnation that the Widow Douglas assured him was in store for him rather than obey the law and expose Jim. The scene in which Huck tears up the letter that would have revealed Jim’s status as a runaway slave is a stunning, breathtaking affirmation of an individual’s capacity to behave ethically no matter what the consequences to himself. Here is a child as hero, making a moral and compassionate decision despite being surrounded by adults who are unable to perceive the inconsistencies and cruelties of their own worldview.
Today when the discourse in our country on race, prejudice, religious and cultural differences is polarized, paralyzed, or incendiary, we could all use a trip down the Mississippi River with Huck and Jim with Mark Twain as our guide. There is much in this book that speaks to the dilemmas we currently face, the decisions that we and our children have to make as citizens in a democracy. Huckleberry Finn is a rewarding re-read once one has gained the perspective that time and experience provide. If you read it as a student in school, or if your son or daughter is reading it now, it is a book that can spark thoughtful consideration and discussion of the difficult moral decisions that confront all of us as we navigate through our lives. Is it ever OK to disobey the law? What would have been the results if characters in the book had made different decisions? When and how does one protect a friend?
If you did not read it as a teenager, think about making it your next book. If you can read it and discuss it with your son or daughter, all the better. Talk about the decisions people made in the book and why they were so difficult. Talk about difficult moral decisions you or your child have made, what made those decisions so difficult, and why you decided as you did. Talk about how books can influence our lives and how fictional characters embody enduring truths. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a rich source of material to help you guide your child through challenging situations now and in the future.
It’s a journey that takes us all down the Mississippi River, literally and figuratively into the heart of our country – past and present. Looking carefully behind Mark Twain’s story line and laughs, we find two unlikely runaways wrestling with issues of heart and conscience one hundred and sixty years ago; and we find ourselves in the present moment.
Even if you’ve done it before, you will enjoy hopping on that raft with Huck and Jim again. Risk Mark Twain’s prosecution and banishment; search for the moral and motive in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You won’t be disappointed!
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