Banned Book Club: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

But first, the adventures of 1minion:

It was a hot day but I felt I could use a walk. I got off the bus downtown and, after catching up with the ladies at the library were I used to work, proceeded to stroll across the Broadway bridge. I paused a few times to watch the action on the river. Several people had their jet-skis out and one was pulling an inner tube of sorts for a rider who had trouble staying on. Others lounged on the sandbar enjoying the sun and a couple dogs were down there also, chasing sticks and swimming. It looked like a pretty good time. When I got to the top of the bridge, the road was blocked for traffic. Saskatoon’s Fringe Festival is on right now so I wandered around there a little. Then I figured I should get back to the restaurant. I had a suspicion the venue for our meeting might have changed on account of the Fringe and that I missed the update. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one; our organizer met several of us inside and gave us the new address, a backyard graciously offered. We all found the house in the end and had a very fun discussion about the book and many other topics.

I can’t imagine anyone would want to read a book about my walk from downtown as a dozen little unconnected stories that climax at the key “where are they?” moment before the denouement of reunion. Huck Finn was kind of written that way, though, but Mark Twain would probably be considered a far better writer than me and had a lot more to say with his story than “2 guys got on a raft and went somewhere.” His is far more culturally significant and historically beloved — and often banned for all the usual reasons. His choice of language, certain events and characterizations of people drive other people into a expurgating tizzy. I made sure to get a proper copy, too, not the one that had been Bowdlerized.

I confess I had trouble following the story at some points but this seems to be the gist.

Huck’s on the border of civility and wild child at the beginning. He’s been taken in by a widow who’s trying to get him educated in school and in Christ but is always looking for ways to escape the cultural restrictions put upon him. His father is a violent drunkard and a deadbeat but convinces a judge that Huck should be with him. Huck has mixed feelings – glad to be back to barefoot living in the boonies but his pap is a frightening man and often locks Huck in the little cabin. Huck’s clever enough to figure out how to escape, though, and fakes his death. He scarpers away while Pap’s gone and takes to the river in a canoe they found. Huck manages to reach a small island in the middle of the Mississippi river and lives alone there for a time. And then he realizes he has company.

It turns out to be Jim, a slave owned by the family Huck had been living with for a time. Jim ran away and rafted to the island for a different reason – he was set to be sold and would be moved even further away from his wife and their children. He hopes to reach the free states and then somehow get his wife and children back as a free man. Huck is completely willing to help him but many obstacles – people they meet and the river itself – get in the way of their goal.

The episodic nature of the first half was hard to keep track of. Huck meets so many people and lies to all of them and tells so many lies to Jim (but later feels shame over). Huck’s experiences with these people are entirely random and don’t drive the plot in a specific direction – at least not for long. People are met briefly and some stuff happens and then the people are left behind as the raft moves on. Huck seldom thinks anymore about them once they’re gone.

I understand the importance of the book culturally, of course. It shows us a time that’s gone and yet that history has impacted on the US and the world in so many important and troubling ways. It’s morally and ethically interesting for a lot of reasons.

At our club meeting Thursday night, somebody brought this up. Twain approached slavery and the southern way of life in a way that made people at the time pretty incensed and defensive. One of the complaints they had about the book, apparently, was that it wasn’t genteel enough and made everybody look bad. Twain wrote it as true to the time as he could, though, and did see people like those he described in the book often enough. He worked on the riverboats for years and was well familiar with the sort of people lured to the area to seek their fortune, or to get away with someone else’s.

The best bit of the book for me was in the middle when they meet up with the King and the Duke, a couple of high-stakes con artists looking to rob every two-bit town they find themselves in. Huck sees through them easily enough but admires their tenacity and imagination. He begins to realize that they don’t have a Robin Hood approach to their thieving and don’t care how poor a town is; they’ll con every nickel out of it if they can and aim to make fools out of everyone in the process. Huck starts to look for ways to put a stop to them.

The book went downhill from there, I thought, at least in terms of how Huck coincidentally finds himself in the company of his friend Tom Saywer’s extended family and has to pretend to be Tom. Tom turns up, too, and pretends to be his brother Sid and Jim’s been caught by the family as a runaway and the real Tom devises a ridiculous and elaborate escape plan for him and it’s just… well, I already said ridiculous. And it turns out that Tom already knows Jim’s previous owner died and freed him in her will so it’s a bunch of fucking around for the hell of it and not at all nice, frankly.

I can’t really say I cared for the story as a whole. I wasn’t gripped by it. Certain parts were funny but.. I don’t know. It didn’t do anything for me. Sorry to any Twain fans in the audience with that confession. Each to their own, as they say. Can’t like everything…

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