For a brief shining moment in the spring of 1969, I was Aunt Polly. The 8th grade class of St. Peter’s enacted a little play based on some scenes from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We all got to choose parts, and I petitioned long and hard (it seemed so, for there was heavy resistance) for the part of Aunt Polly.
Who in their right mind would want to be Aunt Polly, you might ask, and me a boy as well?
But I looked on it as a challenge – could I, a 12 year old boy, bring off this crotchety old maid? I felt I was up to the challenge. Besides, I had the outfit already. On the Halloween prior, I decided that I wasn’t going to get dressed up in any of the more typical outfits – superheroes, skeletons, ghosts, the characters in the YMCA song – no, I was going to paint Dorchester, MA, red as an old woman.
And so, when it was announced that we were going to perform some scenes based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I figured, “I got the outfit, I’m gonna play the part of Aunt Polly.” As it turned out, I had no such aunt, and my mother had nothing about Aunt Polly about her, but Sr. Joseph Helen, our 8th grade teacher, known to all the students as “Jake” had a lot of Aunt Polly about her, and so I modeled myself on “Jake” and tried to channel Aunt Polly, with a little Jonathan Winters’ Maude Frickert thrown in.
I cannot say that it was a dramatic triumph, for it was not, but I did shake things up a little in my class – not only had I chosen to play the part of Tom’s spinster aunt, but I made a foray into the exciting world of cross-dressing. Of course, this grossed out many of my classmates, as it had my Halloween crew the fall preceding, -- so how could I not do it? And this had none of the tougher aspects of transvestism – there’d be no waxing, no make-up, no hair-do to worry about – nope, sensible shoes, a brown blouse, a long grey house-dress, a grey wig (flame retardant, no less!) and my glasses worn low on my nose.
And in finally reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in its entirety for The Big Read (I had only read a few chapters of it at St. Peter’s – for some reason we didn’t often read whole novels, but only chapters that had been included in our reader – in those days, I was more a Reader’s Digest than a reader), I was glad to become reacquainted with Tom’s aunt. And, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised – she turns out to be much less crotchety than I played her. She’s a woman forced by circumstances (and her own good heart) to raise her dead sister’s family on her own , and she shows a great generosity of spirit towards the boy, who often tries her patience.
I found myself especially moved by those moments when Tom gets her to forget she’s angry at him, and she chuckles to herself. It’s as if she were simply playing the part of Aunt Polly in hopes of keeping Tom on the straight and narrow. And from what Twain himself said about Tom – that Tom likely went into law as an adult and became a respectable member of society – I’d say she won.
This takes place in the evening following Chapter VIII. Everyone is in bed, but Tom can’t sleep. He is aware of every little sound, and time passes slowly. He does finally nod off, but is awakened by what sounds like a cat howling. He climbs out the window to investigate to find Huck Finn who has brought his dead cat along. The two go to the graveyard to see if devils come to take the spirit of Hoss Williams, recently deceased. After some waiting, they think that devils have come, only to discover that the three approaching figures are not demons, but young Doctor Robinson, accompanied by Muff Potter, one of the town drunks (the other is Huck’s dad) and the menacing Injun Joe. Setting aside the whole matter of political correctness, which makes me cringe when I read “Injun” Joe, Twain has made a truly great melodrama villain in the taciturn Joe.
The three have come to rob Hoss Williams’ grave (for experiments perhaps? – there was something Frankenstein about this scene), but Joe is still bitter toward the doctor for the way, as a boy, he had treated Joe, and for the doctor’s father getting Joe jailed for vagrancy. The two begin to fight, but Potter comes between them in defense of Joe. When the doctor knocks Potter out, Joe takes Potter’s knife and stabs the doctor, who dies. When Potter awakes, he has a bloody knife in his hand and the doctor dead at his feet. Joe lets him believe he killed the doctor in a drunken fit. Tom and Huck, who witnessed the scene, beat a hasty retreat.
Tom and Huck run to town, and are resolved not to speak of what they’ve seen. They feel bad for Muff Potter, but fear Joe’s wrath. Swearing an oath and committing it to a roof tile and initialing the pact with their bloody initials – it’s a big oath, after all – they vow to say nothing. They encounter what they take for a stray dog, and fear the dog as a sign of doom to come. They see that the dog is merely interested in the drunken Muff Potter, collapsed by a building and sleeping off his drunk.
Tom wakes late the next morning, and expects some sort of physical punishment from Aunt Polly, but she merely expresses her disappointment in Tom (see – she’s really a sweetie), which has the effect of making Tom seem even worse for playing hooky and worrying his aunt. When he gets to school, he is quite glad to take the corporal punishment he gets there, but he is quite upset when he sees that Becky Thatcher has returned the brass door knob he had given her as a token of his affection.
The schoolmaster lets the students out early. News has spread through the town of the murdered body of Doctor Robinson and the unauthorized exhumation of Hoss Williams. The whole town goes to see the scene, and the word’s out that Muff Potter was covered in blood and acted suspiciously. Tom is not happy about visiting the graveyard again, even in the day, nor is Huck. When Muff Potter arrives, Joe quickly tells the story of Muff’s killing the doctor while drunk. Tom and Huck are amazed at Joe’s lies and assume that lightning will strike him dead. When it doesn’t, they assume he has made a pact with the devil and so is safe from meteorological retribution. This convinces Tom and Huck to say nothing against so powerful an adversary. The townspeople think that Joe should be run out of town for grave-robbing, but no one is brave enough to take the first step.
Tom’s brother, Sid, reports that Tom talks in his sleep and that he has been saying some peculiar things. Aunt Polly and Tom’s sister, Mary, both suggest that everyone likely has bad dreams with the doctor being murdered. Sid remains suspicious and keeps an eye on Tom; when Tom shows no interest in taking part in a mock-inquest to determine who killed a cat, Sid’s sure something is up.
Tom is down in the dumps because Becky has not been in school for a few days, and is thought to be ill.
Aunt Polly tries to cure Tom of his ailment, first by the “water cure” – in which he is doused in cold water, and then by some folk remedy that she thinks of as “liquid fire.” We find out that Aunt Polly is fond of the latest cures, and tries them all out (on others, for she never gets sick) – I figure that these days Aunt Polly would be an infomercial junkie. Tom, though, pretends to really enjoy the “liquid fire” cure, so Aunt Polly lets him handle his own medication. Tom doesn’t take any more of the medicine, but pours his dosage into a crack in the floor; when their cat, Peter, seems determined to get some of the medicine for himself, Tom obliges. The elixir has the effect of speed and acid on the poor cat, who goes tearing through the house. Aunt Polly does not punish Tom, but takes pity on him (sweetie!).
Tom is overjoyed to see Becky Thatcher at school again, but she acts indifferent towards him and his antics, and he is crestfallen.
Mark Twain likes to poke fun at people’s gullibility. Throughout this novel, notice times when characters hold onto a belief, even when common sense and the facts do not support their position – e.g. Tom and Huck are convinced that the stray dog is a sign of doom, but when Huck points out that a stray dog came to a house and no one in the house died, Tom’s response is that someone will die – just wait. Have you noticed this phenomenon? Who were the characters and what was the situation?
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.