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A bad book from a great author

December 9, 2011

Image lifted from http://minookapedia.wikispaces. com/Tom+Sawyer+book+ summary-BCermak

Everyone likes Mark Twain. That’s why it’s so disappointing to come across a bad product penned by him.

As a teen, I went with my mother to a used bookshop where I spotted two novels by Mark Twain that I’d never heard of, Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective. I was delighted to discover more adventures of Huck, Jim and Tom, and I suggested that we buy them, but my mother shook her head. “They’re not very good,” she told me. “He wrote them because he needed the money.” As we left the shop without buying anything I was filled with disappointment, for I couldn’t conceive that Mark Twain could have written anything unworthy of interest.

Most people today are as surprised as I was to learn that Twain wrote two sequels to his much-loved novels about Tom and Huck. You can access them online thanks to Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org). Having accidentally found Tom Sawyer Abroad while browsing there, I seized the opportunity to download it to my Nook so I could finally read the further adventures of Tom, Huck and Jim.  I sat down filled with satisfied expectation of a good yarn by my favorite American author. Alas, in this, as in so many other things, Mother Knew Best.

One of the original covers for the 1890s novel by Twain. Notice how on both these covers, Jim is missing.

The story begins well, as pure science fiction: Tom, Huck and Jim go to attend the launch of an intercontinental airship created by an inventor who intends to sail across the Atlantic to England. He kidnaps the three, goes crazy and attempts to kill his captives, finally falling overboard to his death far below. The two boys and the ex-slave remain in the balloon, drift off course and spend the rest of the book crossing the Sahara, ending in Egypt. The text is filled with Orientalist camel caravans,  deadly sandstorms that engulf and bury alive any hapless travelers in the desert, and hungry lions and tigers who jump at the airship’s dangling rope ladder the way cats jump after a piece of yarn. But this makes it sound much better than it actually is. Not much happens since the entire thing is set above the endless ocean followed by the endless sands of the Sahara. The three companions converse and tell “stretchers” for the most part. They also search for water, bathe at an oasis, help a mother whose child has been stolen by bandits, and fight off a tiresome number of large felines. (Twain apparently did not know that desert is not the natural habitat of tigers.) Jim, as a man of color, is seen by Tom as fair game for clumsy pranks. The book is uneven, even distracted, with the good sections interrupted by indifferent parts that run on too long. It ends abruptly, leaving the reader with a distinct sense that Twain was rushing to meet a deadline.

And yet there are indeed many prime golden nuggets buried amid the dross. When describing his first sight of the balloonist, who is standing up to a jeering crowd who don’t believe his aircraft will fly, Huck says “But that was his way. I reckon he couldn’t help it; he was made so, I judge. He was a good enough sort of cretur, and hadn’t no harm in him, and was just a genius, as the papers said, which wasn’t his fault. We can’t all be sound: we’ve got to be the way we’re made. As near as I can make out, geniuses think they know it all, and so they won’t take people’s advice, but always go their own way, which makes everybody forsake them and despise them, and that is perfectly natural. If they was humbler, and listened and tried to learn, it would be better for them.”

The author at some point during his last three years.

Or this: “But Jim was asleep. Tom looked kind of ashamed, because you know a person always feels bad when he is talking uncommon fine and thinks the other person is admiring, and that other person goes to sleep that way. Of course he oughtn’t to go to sleep, because it’s shabby; but the finer a person talks the certainer it is to make you sleep, and so when you come to look at it it ain’t nobody’s fault in particular; both of them’s to blame.”

But these good parts are weighed down by the interactions between Tom and Jim. The affection we have for Tom as a character becomes troubled as we see his offhanded condescension toward his colored travel companion, whose ignorance he jeers at and upon whom he plays casual pranks. Recall the troublesome final section of the otherwise-splendid “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in which the slave Jim wins his freedom only after Tom subjects him to a painful number of humiliations and jests? People have argued about the ending of “Huckleberry Finn” for years: did Twain want us to react against Tom’s behavior and see  it as the white man’s oppression of the black man, or was he simply providing the reader with low humor fit for a minstrel show? “Tom Sawyer Abroad” extends and elaborates upon that same question. And here’s the ultimate problem of this book: it’s not really Tom who’s playing these pranks on Jim—  it’s Twain himself. And that’s the part that makes me sad.

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