Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn : A strange mix

With thanks to and Wikicommons

Recently I’ve been working through the free LibriVox recordings of Tom Sawyer series.  I decided to revisit them when, looking something up for a library member, I discovered to my surprise that the series is actually four books long. The third, the brief note said, was written as a parody of Jules Verne. Now, I’m in a bit of a steampunk mood recently…I’ve been meaning to buy myself a frock coat for Christmas, that sort of thing, so I thought, “Time to revisit the whole Tom Sawyer series”.

Re-reading the books, now as an adult, I find the series a bit strange, in terms of tone. Books one, three and four are light stories of the “boys adventure” genre, a story type which I can’t say I can think of a great modern proponent of.  Do we still want boys to dream about exploring mineshafts for robber treasure, or have we given that up as a bad idea?  Is our modern version the Cherub or Stormbreaker series?  Can we even have stories like Tom’s given that part of his charm is that he’s both naive and cunning at once? So, the first book in the series is a really solid children’s book. It has a hero, an adventure story and a love interest, so it’s a pretty conventional structure.  The execution is fun, because Twain’s such a wit, and the folk superstitions held by the characters add a lot of colour.

The second book, Huckleberry Finn, is a really odd book, in terms of its structure. For the first 90% of the book, it’s a perfectly good, no, a perfectly excellent read for an adult reader.  It’s about a young boy, and a runaway slave, and his moral conundrum in that by helping Jim steal himself, Huck is doing something he knows God does not approve of. Then at the end it suddenly becomes a boy’s own novel again,.  Seriously, if you read it, tell me if you don’t experience a similar lurch in tone as soon as Tom appears.  It’s almost as if Tom is carrying his genre with him, and when he appears in the novel it changes from a powerful coming of age narrative to a sort of American Enid Bylton novel.  Now, the thing is: I really liked Tom Sawyer, and the last bit of Huckleberry Finn is just the same as Tom Sawyer, so why do I dislike it so much?  I think it’s because in the earlier parts of the book, Twain has really stretched his art and done great things, and then it all sort of contracts down and, well, it doesn’t fizzle out so much as hit a point where story could have stopped, but then kick in for a little extra bit which adds nothing to the story.

The third book is, sadly, of negligible interest.  It’s arguably sci-fi, but it’s sci-fi done badly.  It easy of course to look at authors a century ago and say that did sci-fi in a very simple way, but that’s not the point I’m making. The problem with Tom Sawyer Abroad isn’t that he commandeers an airship – that’s unobjectionable because it is foundational to the whole yarn. It makes as much sense to complain about that as to speculate on the likelihood that Bilbo Baggins would go into just the right cave to meet Gollum. It isn’t that the airship is the only science fictional element: that’s fine too. The problem is that the book is part of the cavalcade of wonders style of sci-fi, or travel writing, where the author is using his characters to frame a series of descriptions of marvelous things for the readers to enjoy vicariously.  Now, the problem here is that Tom basically goes to Egypt, and so, to a modern reader, the wonders are familiar. I can’t get into the mindset of Twain’s readers, for whom a picture of the Sphinx would be an alarming marvel. The exotic Sphinx, the vast pyramids, and the majestic Sahara just can’t carry the story.  They are wonders we know too well.

The fourth book is a mystery novel, and again its a parody of a genre. The mystery genre, however, has grown up since Twain’s time, and now has a set of unspoken rules about fair play between the author and the reader. When Twain mocks earlier authors, who did not abide by such rules, as a modern reader, it’s hard to see what he’s doing. It just looks like he, himself, is writing badly.  I caught some of the references because I’m also currently listening to the Cleek novels, which are detective mysteries written before the modern ideas of fair play came in, and so the ridiculous convolutions of their plots have helped me pick parallels in Tom Sawyer, Detective.

Twain says he took the case from a real case in Sweden. Even if the case is real, Twain has chosen it, particularly, because it has unlikely and implausible elements that are similar to the stories he is parodying. This means that, if you are familiar with the tropes of early detective fiction, and that Twain is over-emphasising them for humorous effect, you know who the murderer must be, a priori. This means I couldn’t enjoy the book as a puzzle, and because I’m not familiar enough with the work he is parodying, I couldn’t enjoy the writing as a pastiche.  So without commenting on the quality of the writing at all, there are problems for a modern reader of detective stories who tries to enjoy this book.