Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reading with my Kids – Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Source of book: Of course I own this. Don’t you?

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know.

Reading to Know - Book Club

This month, the choice was Tom Sawyer. I loved this book as a kid, and decided to read it to my kids rather than by myself.

While this book is a literary classic, it is surprising how few adults have ever read it. I imagine it used to be assigned reading back in junior high school, but it seems to have lost its luster. One reason is undoubtedly its use of racial terms that are now both outdated and offensive. I did have to stop and explain the use of “negro” and its variants, as my kids were unfamiliar with the term. They have learned about slavery, and have an age-appropriate understanding of racism, but this is probably the first time they have encountered the terms in literature. I discussed this issue a bit in my review of Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Another thing I had to spend time explaining was superstition. I had forgotten how superstitions Tom and Huck (and everyone else) are in this book. Also, I had not realized that kids are apparently less superstitions than when I was a kid. In our neighborhood, I remember plenty of weird conversations about the number thirteen, sports rituals, and the like. Maybe we live in a snarkier age, where even silly beliefs about meaningless things have vanished. About all my kids knew was “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” – which they learned from my mother!

My kids loved this book. They were alternately scandalized and amused by Tom’s inclination toward trouble. They cracked up at the scene where he misidentifies the first two Disciples of Christ as “David and Goliath”. I was surprised to degree that they understood Twain’s humor, particularly since there were myriad archaisms that needed explanation. They also enjoyed finding all the references to this book hidden in Disneyland, even though there are fewer than there were when I was a kid. 

In fact, this was one facet of the book that I had forgotten. Tom Sawyer isn’t really written for the average child. Perhaps at one time, it would have been at an eight grade level, but I doubt many kids these days could comprehend it. The ones that could would probably be too jaded to enjoy it. The language is sophisticated and complex. The vocabulary is large and varied. The literary and Biblical references are many.

On the other hand, Twain’s humor is fun for readers of all ages. This is not a “kids’ book” that is tedious for adults, yet the perspective is that of a child, not an adult.

More than likely, the reason that Twain was able to write so convincingly of the irrepressibly boyish Tom is that he drew from real life. Twain claimed that Tom was based on a combination of three boys he knew. The truth is that one of those boys was Samuel Clemens himself – the boy who would later write as Mark Twain. In his posthumously published Autobiography, Twain admits that he in fact did trick his friends into whitewashing a fence for him, and did dose the cat with painkiller, after the floorboard trick was discovered. In his typically dry way, he observed that the painkiller was intended to prevent cholera, and worked well – no cholera occurred below the floorboards. Aunt Polly and Sid were based on Twain’s mother and brother. Huckleberry Finn was based on Tom Blankenship, the son of the town drunk. In real life, the parents all tried to prevent their sons from associating with such a character, and thus “Huck” became that much more attractive as a companion. Likewise, Becky Thatcher and Injun Joe were based on real people, although Twain changed some of the events to suit his story. It is this personal experience that makes Tom Sawyer seem so real.
 Illustration by True Williams

There are some within my acquaintance that dislike the fact that Tom is rather naughty. By and large, these people are mothers. I wish to avoid sounding sexist here, but I believe that there is something in Tom that is in every boy, even those of us who were more like Sid. I would qualify here. I didn’t get into much trouble, excelled in school, and would never have dreamed of actually sneaking out at night. Boy, it would have been fun, though!

Is there really a boy alive who hasn’t dreamed of spending several days on an island? Of digging for buried treasure? Of ditching school to play “Robin Hood”? Which of us has not felt misunderstood on occasion when fed some bit of medicine? Ok, I did, at least. I wasn’t Tom, and never will be, but there is some of him in me. I still love fireworks – and love lighting my own. I wish they still sold real sparklers, not the “safe” version. I love Mythbusters, and would love to set off explosions for fun too. I like being out in the woods overnight. I like yelling and hollering when we score a goal in a soccer game. I like tweaking the sensibilities of the females in my life. It’s something that few women will ever really understand.

Tom Sawyer is firmly in a tradition of “bad boy” literature. The genre is generally considered to have been established by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in The Story of a Bad Boy, published in 1870, although Horatio Alger wrote a few stories that might be considered precursors. Interestingly, Aldrich’s book was also semi-autobiographical. Booth Tarkington’s Penrod novels are later examples of this type of story.

It is my belief that one of the important functions of literature is to allow the reader to enjoy certain liberties vicariously. Times have changed since the 1800s, when a boy in a small town could safely wander the woods and turn up late at night, and nobody would think it unusual. But it sure would be fun if that chance at adventure still existed. For a boy like me, who always valued his independence, occasional solitude, and loved being out in nature, books of this sort allowed me to imagine. Just as (some) girls love the princess fantasy (it certainly sells merchandise!), many boys enjoy a fantasy of their own. To be free, like Huck, from the grind of civilization. To be able to be dirty without having to hear about it. To escape the responsibility and hard work of real life. (After all, isn’t this a key component of the princess fantasy?) And yet, we get up in the morning and enjoy hot running water, good coffee and food, go to work, enjoy the company of wife and children, and curl up with a good book in the evening. Twain himself, despite his loathing of school, became a world-renowned author, with a wife and kids of his own.

Still, that impossible, impish, impulsive “boy” is still there. So I take my kids to a cave each year. We climb mountains and go camping. We make noise, and blow off fireworks on Independence Day. And sometimes, we remember dreaming of running off to Jackson Island with Huck Finn the Red Handed with a stolen ham, some fishing gear, and nothing worse to fear than a thunderstorm. 
UPDATE 2022: 
Since my younger kids didn't experience this book during the first read, I made sure that they got a chance before they got too old. My youngest was the only one who hadn't read it for fun, but the others enjoyed it again. Truly, this book never gets old. 
In this case, we listened to it on audiobook, read by Patrick Fraley, during a vacation. My youngest is pretty much a female version of Tom, headstrong and independent and a bit feral. So she really enjoyed all the escapades. 
As I noted earlier, there are some wince-worthy spots, mostly the use of racial epithets that are either offensive or just inappropriate now. Likewise, there are racial stereotypes that are problematic, even though Twain was progressive for his time. I'll specifically mention the term "half-breed" as applied to Injun Joe (itself a racial slur), and Twain's tendency to dehumanize Native Americans. These are issues we have discussed together, of course. I'm sure my grandchildren will have bones to pick with my own writing (if they ever read it), and my hope is that, like Twain, I can at least be described as "trying to do better, and learning as I get older.)

My brother has read his kids both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and we talked a bit about that experience on the trip. For both of us, actually saying n-----r is profoundly uncomfortable, and we have had difficultly figuring out how to read the book. I have ended up changing it to "negro" most of the time, but there in some cases, I think you have to keep the original - its offensiveness in the mouth of a loathsome character is part of the point. 

This is definitely an example of how times have changed. In my youth, my parents were pretty freaked out about the use of "hell" and "damn," to say nothing of "fuck," and "shit." For both my brother and me, we don't even care about the first two, and the second two are not reasons to, um, lose our shit. But neither of us would ever let our kids say n-----r, or call someone a "retard."
I think this is actually a positive development in society. Whatever one may think about profanity (in the sense of using religious terms or names as expletives), the shift away from finding sex and bodily functions to be "unprintable," and towards the idea that what is really unacceptable is the use of slurs against other human beings is a good one. Demeaning humans is a bad thing, and I am glad that society is realizing that. 
On the other hand, there is nothing holy about shit. Holy shit only comes from sacred cows, and god knows we need to slaughter those. 


  1. I read this to Addi and Stuart last year, and they loved it. Stuart especially liked the part in church with the bug - he is very Tom-like in his dislike of having to sit still in church :)

  2. I was trying to imagine this book outloud as I read along. As you say, many references are now archaic and I did wonder how I would talk about the use of the word "Negro." I think my oldest is still too young to grapple with the issue in total. (He's just becoming more aware of things like that and we're JUST starting to talk about it.) Therefore I think I'd hold off on this book for another year or two. That said, the part about "David and Goliath" made ME laugh outloud and I knew he would think it funny also.