Friday, June 17, 2011

Huckleberry Jim

I began re-reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and I think I have a new appreciation for the genius of Mark Twain. Okay, I'm not reading it, but listening on a recorded CD that I play in the car to keep me from flipping off Staten Island's notoriously discourteous drivers. Actually listening is a better way to hear the story because the narrator does a splendid job of recreating the Mississippi River accents that Twain tried so hard to reproduce in the book. A big part of enjoying books on CD is how well the book is narrated. Unlike the written word, sound brings a whole new dimension to the enjoyment of the story, and a good narrator always adds another level of enjoyment. Some authors try to read their own works thinking no one knows them better, but they fail to recognize that as they are masters of their craft, so too are the actors who do so much better as recorded book readers.

 But I'm off the track. One of the gifts that Twain had was his ear. He unfailingly captures the regional language spoken in Missouri by people who lived along the banks of the Mississippi. Their "backward" way of looking at life often reveals a shrewd wisdom not always found among the higher cultures in American society. Twain satirizes the pathetic attempts of ante-bellum Southerners to hold onto a lifestyle that pretty much ended with the Civil War. He also takes a scathing look at the prevailing attitudes in the region, especially racism. The book was criticized upon release because of its coarse language. It became even more controversial in the 20th century because of its perceived use of racial stereotypes and because of its frequent use of the racial slur "nigger", despite strong arguments that the author and main characters in the book are clearly anti-racist.

I don't want to bore you with deep sociological issues, but rather focus on the main character, Huck Finn, who narrates the book. Twain's genius allowed us to look at the world through the eyes of this extraordinary 14-year old boy. Huck's adventures with runaway slaves, con men, Southern aristocrats, river travelers and townsfolk provide the platform for the author's keen observations on life. Huck's ability to make up whopping lies every time he's in a tight spot is highly amusing, as is the dead certainty with which he speaks about things of which he knows absolutely nothing. His flaws can't mask a kind and innocent heart that almost always leads him to do the right thing when push comes to shove.

Reading this wonderful tale reminds me of the differences between 14-year olds in the 1880's and now. In Huck's day, book learnin' was rare, but boys were schooled in a different kind of it outdoor lore for want of a better term. They spent a lot of time outside, and could hunt, fish, cook, handle a boat, navigate by the stars and generally survive on their own. A lot more was expected of them when it came to helping the family, whether it was working on a farm or finding a job that allowed them to contribute to their upkeep. Today's kids are far brighter academically, but often don't get the chance to loosen those apron strings until they go away to college.

It's fun re-reading some of the books we were made to read as kids. You get a different kind of pleasure as an adult and can finally appreciate why Mrs. Hornburger tried so hard to beat this stuff into my thick skull.


Looking for a worthy charity? Try these folks:
Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I personally am a big fan of what originally was called: "Books on Tape" when I commuted to work in my car for over an hour each way! It made traffic jams a pleasure.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Joe, they are what keep me from commiting murder in traffic!