Here’s a book I never thought I’d read. Not that I was against it, quite the opposite, I thought I should. Twain’s been on my short list since I visited his white-washed fences and limestone caverns a few years ago, his boyhood home being just over the Mississippi from my Dad’s place in the free-state of Illinois. I just never thought I’d get around to it.
Books, like bands and brands, get attached to certain slices of life: Narnia for the kids, Harry Potter for the ‘tweens. The epic battle between Beats and Ayn Rand for the undergraduate mind. Which is the long was of saying that I didn’t think Tom Sawyer was for me.
I thought it was for kids, maybe bigger kids at best. The sort of safely-assigned text on which a middle-schooler could practice his prose, a prompt on which to pen a theme. (A “book report”, in the parlance of my times.) If I didn’t get around to it back then, I doubted I would now. My mistake.
In his preface, Twain states:
Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.
And that he does. Tom reminds me so much of myself, if only I had some major boyhood balls.
This kid gets into it. He couldn’t be older than eleven or twelve, but he’s already wading waist-deep into the river of life. Sneaking out, running off, practicing tricks nicked from drunks and murderers and thieves. Bleeding and scavenging, thought twice dead but living to tell the tale. This isn’t pure fantasy either, as Twain states: “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine.”
Here’s what gets me: Somehow we all grow up thinking that yesterday was a more innocent time. That the good old days have been lost to violence and fear and decay, that Tom Sawyer had it so much better as he lay back on a summer’s night looking up at shinier stars, unobstructed by the haze of modern life.
Nah. Safety first is the motto of our times, all cushy and measles free. If we’ve lost anything, it’s not innocence but grit. Tom and Huck knew how to handle real trouble, and we need them now more than ever. We need our Soda Pops and Pony Boys, our mischievous run-a-mucks, rude boys and rock ‘n rollers. We need ring-leaders to raise up gangs of adventure, to explore new frontiers, to shepherd our sons and daughters to the wild edge and safely back again.
If Tom were here and took a look around, there’s only one thing he’d say: “I can lick you.”
And then he would. He surely would.