The Year of Huck Finn
, Sept. 8 2003
This review is from: Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer Among the Indians (Hardcover)
Reviewed by Carolyn Howard-Johnson, award-winning author of This is The Place and Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered
This is the year that Mark Twain is back in the news. The University of California Press has just published an amazing--for lack of a word that suits it better--"study" of Huckleberry Finn and several groups have formed a consortium and issued a CD-ROM that also examines the process that went into the writing of this novel. With all this fuss about Huck, it seems a shame that the LA Times and others have pretty much ignored another effort that helps make this the "Year of Huck Finn."
Those who love Mark Twain also know that he started another novel called Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer Among the Indians told in Huck's voice and that he stopped dead in the middle of a sentence somewhere along about the middle. I remember reading this fragment in Life Magazine in 1968, just as a fellow author from Utah did. The difference between our two experiences is that Lee Nelson decided to do something about it; he obtained the rights to use this fragment so he could finished Twain's second book about one of our nation's most well-known protagonists.
Amazingly enough, Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer Among the Indians told by both Twain and Nelson was issued this year along with these other scholarly tracts on Huck. My part in this story is merely to try to get his book more recognition in the face of all this competition.
Given that the first part of this novel is only Twain's rough draft and that the reason he didn't finish it may be that he didn't think enough of it, Lee Nelson has done an admirable job of making it a readable piece. Actually the second "half" moves more quickly than the first.
Now, before anyone thinks I've just committed blasphemy, I refer you to the disclaimer above. It is believed that Twain's part of the book is a first and rough draft. I found it poorly motivated and very nearly a snooze. Somewhere, though, it became a page-turner and that happened about where Nelson's story took over. Nelson had a couple of advantages:
1. He had a chance to polish his part of the book. He couldn't do so with Twain's part; it is obviously too sacred to touch.
2. The book is at least in part about the "defilement" of a young woman and that was a touchier subject back in the 1800s than it is now. Nelson treats it delicately as possible he has a certain advantage because of changed attitudes.
What felt uncomfortable to me in light of the fact that Twain himself called the Book of Mormon "chloroform in print" and that he was otherwise no big fan of the Mormon culture is that Nelson brings lots of extremely idealized Mormon history into this book, especially the near-hero worship of a couple of Danites who undoubtedly would be neither admired by Twain nor by an young man as clever as Huckleberry Finn. Nevertheless this is fiction and Nelson does not claim to be a literary scholar.
That this book was released at a time when the treatment of women after their reputations have been sullied (at no fault of their own) is regularly in the news makes this book as relevant as if it has been thought of only yesterday. Huck observes that the "stuff" that comes from books isn't the same as the "stuff" that happens in the real world; basically he's saying that idealizing any subject may lead to intolerance. He applies his theories of acceptance to the debasement of his dear Peggy's reputation as well as to many other situations he meets along the way to adventure in the West. It is interesting to note that Nelson's Huck is just as sage without nary a shred of book larnin' even when he's assessing a subject as serious as this. He's just as droll and witty, too.
That Nelson did a darn good job of remaining faithful to an unfinished Twain original should certainly qualify his book for inclusion in the hefty publicity these other books on Twain are getting. I wonder if any of the big review journals-or the LA Times for that matter-are listening?
(Carolyn Howard-Johnson's first novel, This is the Place, has won eight awards.Her newly released Harkening has won three.
Both books, like Lee Nelson's, include something of Utah's fascinating history.)
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