When Carrie asked me to be a part of her bookclub as a host, choosing a book was easy. I have wanted to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for a long time; in fact, I have actually intended to read it every year for the past several years, but it always gets pushed to the bottom of the stack because as much as I wanted to read it, there’s always something else that’s just slightly more interesting or urgent. That I haven’t read it or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has always been a source of mild embarrassment, made more acute by the fact that I have a degree in English education and have almost enough graduate English credit hours to have a master’s degree. I taught high school English, for Pete’s sake! Still, somehow in all my education, no one ever forced me to read this one, and since I’ve only lately begun to force myself to make reading selections based on anything but absolute necessity, sheer pleasure, or morbid curiosity, my knowledge of the American literary canon had some gaping holes. I’m happy now to say that I’ve closed one of these more noticeable gaps, and I enjoyed doing it.
There’s a quote by Charles Dudley Weaver from a December 1876 issue of the Hartford Daily Courant on the back of my paperback copy of the book. It says, “The book is full of quotable things. . . but it is unnecessary to quote from a book which everybody will read.” That sums up how I feel about anything I could possibly say about this book. I feel like it’s a joke that everyone has already hee-hawed over, only I’m itching to share it with someone. You’ll excuse me, then, if what I say here seems rather elementary.
First, I had built this book up in my mind to be something that it isn’t at all. I think after years of laboring through obtuse minor works of literature, I expected this one to be hard to understand and complicated, but it is neither. Why didn’t we read this, then, instead of something like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders way back in seventh grade? I have nothing against The Outsiders at all, but Tom and Huck are definitely more important cultural icons than Pony Boy and Johnny. I suspect that as a college-bound, Advanced Placement-taking high school English student, I was supposed to have read this at some other point in my education, but I didn’t. Yes, there are gaps.
Second, I kept thinking while reading this story that it’s really nothing more than the story of a boy’s life and experiences. It’s not really different from many, many other children’s stories that I’ve read. Stories like Understood Betsy(linked to my review), Hans Brinker (link), and Caddie Woodlawn come to mind, with the obvious difference being that Mark Twain makes Tom and his friends “normal” boys instead of paragons of virtue. (I know that comparing books about girls and books about boys in this era especially is comparing the proverbial apples and oranges, but I happen to have read far more books about girls than boys, so that’s what comes to my mind.) Tom Sawyer really is just a coming-of-age story, something that you’re very apt to find if you browse the middle grade section at your local bookstore or library. Something in me asks what makes it so, well, special in the face of so many similar tales, but I do have the perspective of time and familiarity. I know that at the time it was groundbreaking because it depicted a real boy’s life, and when placed in its historical perspective there’s a whole lot more to appreciate. (I’d really, really like to learn more about this from an expert, and since I’m not going back to college to do it, I guess I have more reading to do. )
Third, the best part about the story to me is the very sophisticated humor with which it is infused, mostly in the descriptions and purely joyful incorrigibility of the boys. I can see the roots of so much of American comedy and humor in this story. This is from Tom’s and the new boy’s altercation in chapter one:
“You’re a coward and a pup. I’ll tell my big brother on you, and he can thrash you with his little finger, and I’ll make him do it, too.”
“What do I care for your big brother? I’ve got a brother that’s bigger than he is—and what’s more, he can throw him over that fence, too” [Both brothers were imaginary.]
And this is Tom, just after the object of his affection tosses a pansy flower his way and then disappears into her house:
The boy ran around and stopped within a foot or two of the flower, and then shaded his eyes with his hand and began to look down the street as if he had discovered something of interest going on in that direction. Presently he picked up a straw and began trying to balance it on his nose, with his head tilted far back; and as he moved from side to side, in his efforts, he edged nearer and nearer toward the pansy; finally his bare foot rested upon it, his pliant toes closed upon it and he hopped away with his treasure, and disappeared round the corner. But only for a minute—only while he could button the flower inside his jacket, next his heart—or next his stomach, possibly, for he was not mouch posted in anatomy, and not hypercritical, anyway. (Chapter 3)
Isn’t this the epitome of “cool” adolescence and absurdity? I love it! I found myself smiling and chuckling often while reading this book.
I’m so glad I read Tom Sawyer, and I am eager now to go on and read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as well as Mark Twain’s other novels. If you’re a Mark Twain aficionado, which of his books is your favorite?
Thank you, Carrie, for the nudge to do this! I am so happy to have experienced this great piece of American literature!