The Mississippi is a very long river

My son is now four months old. I’ve been reading ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘ for those same four months and I’m still only halfway through. I’ve managed to keep a human being alive for four months but yet have abjectly failed to finish what I thought was a kid’s book and I’m ashamed. Firstly because I wrote it off as a kid’s book- it’s patently not that. Secondly because I am not the sort of reader who would ever write off a book about or for children. And thirdly, because  I read at the rate of about a book a week and this one I cannot  finish. I’m going to try to pin down why it’s going to be spending a great deal more time on my shelf.

Is it bad? No. It’s clearly a classic. You know the story – it’s now so deeply ingrained in American culture that everyone knows something about Huckleberry Finn.

Huck fakes his death and runs away from his no good dad along with an escaped slave on a raft down the Mississippi. Along the way he meets various characters who are in their own way symbolic of the deep south. I’m obviously not sure how it ends. Huck is talking to readers 150 years down the line, yet his voice remains true to the thoughts and feelings of a 12 year old boy. That, I think, was Mark Twain‘s unique talent. Jim, the slave, is a little more problematic. The book obviously is anti slavery but Jim comes a little too close to the dated concept of the Noble Savage for comfort. I’ve never seen one of the many films of the book but I honestly cannot see how you could put his character on screen without making him into a terribly racist stereotype. The plot meanders along the river with enough hair- raising interludes to keep the reader interested and the language is wonderful. Others have said that this is the first book to capture authentic American venacular from the 19th century. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether people actually talked as they seem to here but certainly the dialogue is fresh, crisp and clear and the use of different dialects doesn’t weigh down the story at all.

So why can’t I finish it? Is it me? Am I too tired out by month upon month of tiny human demands to be able to get lost in a book any more? Do I no longer get to experience the heady pleasure of reading a whole book, start to finish, without once coming up for air? I don’t think so. Because I’ve been skiving off Huckleberry Finn to read books like One Summer by Bill Bryson, and The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson in a sitting. Or (to be accurate) locked in a bathroom with the radio drowning out family life carrying on around me. I’m not reading as much, certainly. Hourly breast feeding has put the breaks on that. Although I am seriously considering audio books because at the moment I am watching way too much Come Dine With Me – but that’s by the by for now.

I’ve been reading a lot of non fiction recently – am I bored of stories?  God, I hope not. Is it the setting? No! I love reading about America from about 1850 to the Jazz age.

So what was it? Why can’t I finish Huckleberry Finn?

I think it’s to do with that word – skiving. However much of a classic a book may be, however admirable its technicalities are, if you feel like you are skiving off by reading something else, it’s lost you. I felt like I should have read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so I’ve been ploughing through it forgetting that there are no rules for reading after school other than enjoyment. And if you don’t enjoy it enough then you shouldn’t be obliged to finish.  I doubt that Mark Twain will care much what I thought anyway.

But enough about me – what do you think? Is there anyone out there who believes I haven’t given Huck a fair break?



2 thoughts on “The Mississippi is a very long river

  1. Nope, I think you’re right. I read it many many years ago, and felt just the same. Perhaps because we have grown up so much more sensitive to racial stereotypes, we have difficulty in preventing the gasp/wince when we when we come across them in literature? Is it just a function of history? I don’t know. Maybe I was too young to understand that this was exactly Twain’s point- to shock and challenge a world in which a child could ‘get it’, while adults were unable to, until the reader becomes sensitised and more sensitive. I’m no litcrit though, and I can’t really remember much about the experience of reading it.
    BTW I had exactly the same feelings about Anna Karenina, which I finally read last year- for most of last year. I was so relieved when it was finished and I could go back to skiving with a good detective novel.The guilt was a terrible burden, but I FINISHED it! Still don’t like her though…..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you are right about time changing our perceptions of stereotypes. However, I would argue that even in Mark Twain’s day the stereotype that he popularised was a bit off – there were plenty black people in the USA who had come from a background of slavery touring both the north and further afield – arguing the case against it eloquently. They certainly didn’t fit into the noble savage thing Mark Twain has going on and makes his take seem cringeworthy even for the time. For example: . Ida would definitely be at my Algonquin Table!


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