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4.43 

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Reliving Childhood Memories
May 03, 2003 11:59 PM 5567 Views
(Updated May 04, 2003 12:36 AM)

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Seldom does one come across a book that’s so saccharine sweet in capturing the essence of a young boy’s juvenile years and at the same time paints a halo of colours in the background by highlighting the US as it was in the early 1800’s. That someone could so effectively encapsulate the mindset of a lad and pit it against the now-abhorred slur of racism was a wonder, that an American was the first to do it in such an enrapturing way was indeed a remarkable achievement at a time when British authors were the toast of the literary world.


The book was first published in the US in 1885 and raised a tumultuous storm and was shortly later, banned by The Concord Public Library which found it to be ''more suited to the slums than to intelligent and respectable people.'' The reasons for this were twofold – firstly, the style of presentation was drastically different as the story is an autobiographical narration with a pre-dominant usage of the first person coupled with the language that was considered to be uncouth and uncivlized by the literary glitterati of that time. Secondly, the support imparted to Jim, a negro slave, by Huck Finn which results in his eventual freedom did not go down too well with the ruling politico who feared that the book could instigate the slaves to fight for their freedom.


The Story


Those who have read the brilliant “Tom Sawyer” would already be familiar with the complex character of Huck Finn who plays Tom’s close pal. The book starts off with Finn being put under the charge of Widow Douglas and Miss Watson who try to raise him like any other elite schoolboy. The ensuing chapters are a pure joy to read as they recount the adventures of Finn and Tom as they try to raise a band of robbers with due inspiration from Robin Hood. Their plans to loot passers-by, their modus operandi and the manner in which the group falls apart out of sheer languor remind of the many adventures that most of us would have embarked upon in our younger days.


Tired of his “Pa’s” drunken bouts of frenzy, Huck fakes his own death by killing a pig and smearing its blood around his Pa’s cabin. He then gets hold of a small canoe and flees Mississippi in search of a new life. His chance meeting with Jim, (Miss Watson’s slave) and their many adventures that strengthen their friendship are all narrated in a very tender manner that touches the heart of the reader.


Funtime again as they bump into The King and The Duke (a dig at the British monarchial ascendancy perhaps?), two thugs who make a living out of conning innocent people. Their scam is ingeniously called “The Royal Nonesuch”, wherein they invite the men of a particular town to a show in which The King parades around naked! The spectators are too shamefaced to admit their nocturnal indulgence and spread the word around town about how terrific the show was. The next evening’s show is again a sellout with the same expressions on the faces of the men. By the time the town people get together to plot revenge on the third evening, the conmen would have already fled the place!


The story continues to chart out the dubious ideas of The King and The Duke and how they plan to get their hands on a huge inheritance sum by masquerading as the real heirs of the treasure. At this point, Tom Sawyer rejoins Huck and they make an elaborate plan to rescue Jim (who is sold as a slave by the conmen).


Thus Spake TiC


The beauty of the book lies in its ability to tackle the myriad issues and sub-plots and inter-twine them all for a comic-book ending. The conceptualisation and treatment of the main characters remains unsurpassed even to this age. Huck Finn, for example, gets a totally different treatment from what Tom Sawyer gets in the previous book. Huck is a typical country lad with a truant father and a long deceased mother. His street-smartness, faculty of quick thinking, uncivilized and uncouth manner of living, his stout refusal to be taught to read and write, the friendship with Jim and his eagerness to see Jim a free man, are all brought out very well.


On a macro level, Mark Twain tackles several themes as they keep revolving around the circumstances that Huck finds himself in. But the two main aspects that are highlighted over and again are Friendship and Racism. What a combination! The very fact that a white boy finds himself fleeing home in the company of a slave effectively marks the winds of change that were beginning to slowly and surely blow across the US political landscape at that time.


The treatment of the story is extremely simple and companion-like in nature. The innocence of the Huck’s character and his two-pronged confusion over the shabby treatment of slaves is really touching.


Inevitable comparisons to “Tom Sawyer” have always been drawn by litterateurs over the decades but to me, both remain as diverse as chalk and cheese. While Tom Sawyer was a humorous account of a mischievous kid (I still laugh out aloud when I’m reminded of his “painting” shenanigans), Huckleberry Finn was an autobiographical work with a deeper subject that sought to tackle one of the worst social stigma that mankind has ever seen – Racism.


If I had the power to do so, I’d ensure that every child of the age group 11-15 compulsorily read this book. It is one of those classic childhood treasures that any parent can possibly give their child.


PS: Many thanks to Samir (Samsat). His wonderful review on “Tom Sawyer” this evening motivated me to write this review.


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