As I child, I read Twain avidly. I loved Huck and his river; I laughed at the Duke of Bilgewater; I feared for Jim. I read and reread Huck Finn, as I reread the novels of Dickens: because I was absorbed by the characters and the language of their world. I couldn’t get enough of those words. In real life I may have been a timid, landlocked girl, but in my head I was Huck, “light[ing] out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me and I can’t stand it.”
And then I grew up. Suddenly I found that I was the parent of a nine-year-old boy who was eager for complex stories about heroes but was not yet facile enough at reading to manage the books themselves. Perhaps an audiobook would do. Perhaps Huck Finn.
Huck Finn indeed. For months our house echoed with the tale. At every spare moment, while sorting baseball cards or building Lego castles, while lying in bed or tying his sneakers, my son listened to Huck Finn. Over and over he played that recording; over and over he followed Huck and Jim down the roiling Mississippi, into the dark theater, out into the tangled underbrush.
And then one day, he trailed after to me into the kitchen and said, “Mom, I don’t understand. Why does Jim have to do what Huck says? Isn’t Jim the grown-up?”
I nearly dropped a plate.
There’s something about Huck Finn that resists easy morality, easy explanations; something that continues to jolt me, to make me recognize that even the simplest query may never have an answer. My family lives in rural Maine, the whitest state in the union. Thus, for my small son, the race issue was nearly invisible. To me, it was far more fraught; yet Twain managed to catch us both off guard, to make both of us wince and worry, to make both of us see the world and one another with new eyes.
“Why does Jim have to do what Huck says?” asked my son. I put down my plate, and pulled out a chair. And we sat there at the kitchen table, my boy and I, and we found ourselves talking about Huck and Jim—not as if they were items on an English test or characters on a page but as if they were people we knew as well as ourselves, as if they were ourselves. We talked about Huck and Jim as if they were secret facets of our own fears and affections.
For me, nothing has ever clarified the power, and the bravery, of Twain’s work more than this child’s question and my reaction to it. A century after its publication, Huck Finn is still teaching its complicated lesson, still pressing us to examine our own humanity, still “light[ing] out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” It’s still talking to us—and making us talk to each other.
What more can we ask of a book?
[first published in The Village Pariah 1, no. 1 (2010)]