by Mark Twain
This was so much more than I expected. My idea of Huckleberry Finn was very much based on the 70’s T.V programme, which I loved. Lots of running around barefoot, having adventures and refusing to be hemmed in by convention. I didn’t realise that Earnest Hemingway had said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn”; or that I would find a story about two, marginalised people on the run for their freedom. $300 dollar reward for Jim, $200 for Huck.
With Huck and Jim on the run, Huck from his abusive father and Jim from slavery; they spend their days “a-floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing”; observing their surroundings and giving us lots of long, slow descriptions of life on the raft, told in Huck’s rich as treacle voice:
“we run nights, and laid up and hid day-times; soon as night was most gone, we stopped navigating and tied up – nearly always in the dead water under a tow-head; and then cut young cotton-woods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee-deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres-perfectly still- just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-clattering, maybe “
At times it reminded me of Thomas Hardy describing the Wessex countryside, as if he’s preserving a way of life for future generations.
The relationship that builds between Huck and Jim is the heart of the story. And Huck’s continual struggle with his conscience is not easy reading. To hear a boy of 13 for whom slavery is a way of life try and figure out the right thing to do is shocking. He is helping a man to escape from “poor Miss Watson”. What did that “poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?” he asks himself; and on hearing that Jim once free would save up enough money to buy his wife (“which was owned on a farm near to where Miss Watson lived; “) and then they would both work to buy the two children,“children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm”, it’s enough to convince him that he must turn Jim in . If he had gone to sunday school, he thinks “they’d a learnt you, there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.'” And he writes to Miss Watson telling her where Jim is.
But Huck is always thinking and questioning and he judges the morals of society against the morals he’s come up with on his own. He struggles with the idea of what it is to be good, according to church and society at large against his own conscience which tells him that Jim is a good human being and a loyal friend. And eventually he makes up his mind “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”.
“There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages” (Mark Twain)
The hypocrisy of the church, and its dominance over any sense of justice is never far below the surface. Whilst Huck is staying with the Grangerfords, (“a handsome lot of quality”) after a discussion about their feud with the Shepherdsons; the bravery , how many members of each family have been gunned down, the very next line “Next sunday we all went to church” is almost written with a chuckle. They listen to a sermon on brotherly love and “they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace”. After more gun fire, when two young boys are shot dead, Huck scared and alone runs and eventually finds the safety of Jim and the raft. So much for society.
Back to the ’70’s – running around barefoot, catching fish and cooking it on an open fire, getting caught up in adventures, eating corn bread – it was all there. But it was much more a novel about a boy finding his moral compass. His life has been filled with poverty,cruelty and neglect, but he’s an independent spirit aware that he has choices and that they have consequences.
“. . . and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
This is my second read for The Classics Club challenge