Bring on the blood oaths, the pirates' island, the foul play, mischief, buried treasure, Becky Thatcher, Huckleberry Finn, and Injun Joe. Bring on The Big Read!
Each week here on KC Unbound during this most festive of reading seasons, we'll be posting recaps of four(-ish) chapters of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, along with insight and commentary. And we want you to join in!
Before we get started, do you have the book? No? Hey, these aren't the CliffsNotes, pal. The Kansas City Public Library has 500 brand-new Penguin Classics editions of Mark Twain’s classic in circulation. Surely you can find one. Or, if you prefer to e-read, you can get a free digital edition through our website. Just follow these instructions.
As we all know, The Big Read is a community-wide reading celebration featuring a diverse range of free public programming aimed at connecting people together over a great book. Be sure to keep up with all the great special events, book discussions, reading podcasts, and get info about KC Ballet’s sure-to-be-amazing production of Tom Sawyer: A Ballet in Three Acts – it’s all at kcbigread.org.
Tom Sawyer was published in 1876 -- pre-Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and post-Innocents Abroad. The story is based on Twain's own experiences growing up in Hannibal, Missouri (“St. Petersburg” in the book) on the banks of the Mississippi. As Twain notes in his preface, the characters, including the titular Tom, are combinations of several real-life friends of Twain, and therefore belong “to the composite order of architecture.”
Though it may not be as lauded as Huckleberry "The Great American Novel” Finn, ATS is a rollicking good read. Twain supposedly went back and forth over whether or not it was a children's book, and the result is we get to enjoy a read that's light, tight, smart, fast – a book, moreover, which is a crucial step in the development of Twain's (and by extension, American literature's) comic voice.
Another difference between it and its sequel: Whereas Twain writes Huckleberry Finn through the main character's point of view, in Tom Sawyer, he adopts the voice of an older man observing, reveling in, and poking fun at the follies of his little lord of misrule. It's at once a story of childhood fantasies realized and a ripping satire of small-town life.
If you've never read Twain before, I envy you – you, sir or ma’am, are going to have the most fun of us all.
The story opens with Aunt Polly peevishly calling for Tom, who has been doing what he does best all day: playing hooky. When he finally appears, Polly (who has been caring for him/wielding the punitive switch after his mother's death) begins to ferret out whether or not he'd taken another, as it were, personal day. His shirt isn't wet from swimming, and the thread she had sewed into his collar is still in place, testifying that he had not pulled it off (kind of like a tamper-evident seal on a water bottle). Unfortunately, Tom's half-brother, Sid, a loathsome goody-goody, points out that the color of said thread is different from what it was earlier that morning morning. Sure enough, Tom has made use of his needlecraft skills to cover up his criminal activity. Tom vows to lick Sid and escapes. He soon encounters a young dandy, new to town, and – no doubt in a fit of misplaced aggression – proceeds to provoke him to violence and then beat him to a sobbing wreck. The boy's mother calls Tom "a bad, vicious, vulgar child." She has a point.
Though "Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life," Tom won't be enjoying it. Aunt Polly has sentenced him to whitewash the fence. After an unsuccessful attempt to get Jim to do it for him, Tom settles unhappily into his work. Twain writes: "Soon the free boys would come tripping along on all sorts of delicious expeditions, and they would make a world of fun of him for having to work -- the very thought of it burnt him like fire." Thanks to a fit of devious inspiration, though, these free boys will come to jeer -- and stay to whitewash. Starting with that steamboat-obsessed rube Ben Rogers, Tom convinces boys one by one that whitewashing is, like, the coolest thing you can do on a Saturday morning. He even charges them for the privilege. The fence gets painted fast, and Tom gets rich in marbles, firecrackers, tadpoles, bits of glass, a one-eyed kitten, and other Missoura-boy currencies. (By the way, you can try your own hand at whitewashing at the Plaza Branch on Friday, Sept. 9.)
After a good exercise in military maneuvering with his buddy Joe Harper, Tom spies Becky Thatcher in her garden and forgets all about Amy Lawrence. Not one to brashly go up to a girl and just ask for the info, Tom begins to "show off" through a series of gymnastic feats, not unlike the mating dance of a male New Guinean bird of paradise. Before Becky disappears after assiduously ignoring Tom’s wooing attempts, she tosses a pansy over the fence. Way better than a phone number! Tom's spirits are high at dinner, but that nudnik Sid breaks the sugar bowl, and Tom – who tends to pilfer the sweet stuff like some kind of a junkie – gets the blame and a backhand from Aunt Polly. He sulks hardcore the rest of the evening, fantasizing about how sorry everyone would be if he drowned. (Foreshadowing.) Tom wanders moonily to lie in repose under Becky's window, and he is rewarded with a cold dose of wastewater, courtesy of the maid.
Oh man, Tom really does it this time. Using startup capital from the whitewashing scam, Sawyer opens a ticket racket at Sunday school. His goal: to amass enough “yaller tickets” to trade in for a coveted Doré Bible, which are typically awarded only after a student has memorized 2,000 bible verses. As his performance earlier that morning for his doting cousin Mary demonstrates, Tom can't even keep a single verse in his wicked, curly head. But the Doré Bible – or rather, the status it confers upon the owner – calls to him. Becky's father, the mighty Judge Thatcher (who "was from Constantinople, twelve miles away -- so he had traveled, and seen the world") comes to Sunday school. The arrival of this distinguished newcomer to the community sends all faculty of the school into a titter to impress him. They all begin “showing off.” Thus, Tom picks the worst possible time to cash in his tickets. Judge T. lavishes him with praise and then asks him a bible trivia question designed to out his duplicity. Tom answers incorrectly, and the narrator concludes the chapter thus: "Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.
So what do you think so far? How is this picture of idyllic, reckless childhood different from or similar to your own, modern upbringing?
Next Week: Librarian Diana Hyle takes on Chapters V-VIII