Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom SawyerThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When we visited Disney World earlier this month, Chris and Kieran enjoyed exploring Tom Sawyer Island, so I suggested that we read the book. Last night I finished reading it to Kieran, who enjoyed it immensely. Each night when it was time for bed, he begged me to read more. In spite of the advanced language and historical venacular, he LOVED the spirit of adventure and imagination.

Even though I majored in English, I had never read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I did see the movie, which I recall gave me nightmares. I didn't realize, though, how far the movie diverged from the book.

I read the book out loud in its unadulterated, original version, and consequently I began editing myself as I read. Initially, I read the word "negro" and explained to my son that we never, ever use those phrases nowadays. I tried to put the story into historical context for him without changing the language completely. But when I came across the other "n" word, I refused to read it out loud. I think 7 years old is too young to know that word.

I realize that Twain has been labeled as a racist by some readers who are taking the language at face value and not looking deeper into the text. Twain was actually enlightened well beyond his day and age (and trying to get his readers to examine racial stereotypes more carefully), as comes through more clearly in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck befriends a runaway slave, and some of his essays.

However, his treatment of Native Americans in these stories is far from sympathetic. "Injun Joe" is not a redeeming character. In fact, he's terrifying. Later in life Twain began to adopt a more sympathetic approach toward native peoples...but at the time he wrote this novel, he had strong opinions about Native Americans (standard at the time).

The best thing about this classic American novel is the way Twain depicts the sheer wonder of boyhood in all its dirty glory. Tom and his friends dwell in their imagination and love for great adventure. They run free and wild and wear shoes only on Sundays. They fall in love and "get engaged" to girls. But in spite of their desire to be pirates and robbers, they also have consciences and are good souls. I chuckled when Tom invented facts to suit his own purposes or showed off to his friends or Becky Thatcher. Or when he told Huck that robbers like to have orgies, having no clue what they were (my son asked what an orgy was, and when he told him, he was horrified).

At times this book was tough going for a 7-year-old (for example, the meandering chapters that took place in Sunday School and at the end-of-the-year school event), and I asked him whether he wanted me to skip ahead to something more interesting, but he vehemently said no. So we plowed ahead.

I ordered a copy of Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn/The Prince and the Pauper via Paperbackswap.com, and when it arrived the other day I was disappointed to note that it is the abridged version of the books. Horrors! I have NEVER read an abridged version of a book. But we will give it a try for Huckleberry Finn.

I have no doubt that we will miss a lot of the depth of language and details contained in Twain's original, but perhaps I won't have to edit myself as much. I understand that Huck Finn is more of an "adult" novel than Tom Sawyer, so perhaps the less interesting parts will be cut out. If I feel like I'm missing a lot, I might just have to seek out the full version later on and read it myself.

Onto the next adventure with Huck Finn!

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2 comments:

  1. Found this while googling about the meaning of "Orgies" in Tom Sawyer.

    Apparently, the meaning of "Orgy" at the time the book was written was more along the lines of "Raucous, alcoholic party" than what it is identified with today.

    I remember when I read this, I mispronounced the word as "Ore-jee" and didn't clue into the modern definition for a few years.

    Back when "Tom Sawyer" et al were written, used of "Negro" or the other word didn't indicate a racist view any more than the use of "Blackamoor" did when it is in use. Was it correct to use these labels? Probably not, but societies, like other living things, evolve.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Jeff, and the information about the word "orgy." And good point about the use of the word "negro." I just didn't want to have to go into that full explanation each time with my 7-year-old. Perhaps when he's older!

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