Oh, Tom Sawyer! Rascal, liar, ladies-boy, wicked heathen … be still my heart. I can still remember my very first encounter with Tom – from my much loved collection of Great Illustrated Classics (my first personal library, maybe?).
I can still picture the cover – Tom strolling regally down the road, barefooted, fishing pole in hand, behind the gingham-clad, blushing Becky Thatcher, steamboat in the background.
Nothing may have influenced my childhood more than the time spent poring over Tom’s adventures. It may even be the first chapter book I put my mind to. Well, that, or The Baby-sitters Club.
Still. Tom and Becky, Injun Joe, Amy Lawrence, Huck, Aunt Polly – from childhood, my conception of classic Americana owes a great debt to these characters. Every woman in a high collar and bun could be a Polly; every straw-hatted little boy becomes Tom. They inform my perception of everything from the idea of running away from home to roadside attractions (for who but a Tom-like character could conceive of charging $13.50 a carload to see giant cement busts of presidents?).
And apparently I’m not alone; Tom Sawyer has made his way into the American Consciousness, and will probably stay there in a way that Huck Finn can’t compete with, despite being foisted upon legions of high school and college students. After all, maybe it’s a product of growing up in the '80s, but I can’t think about this book without hearing Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” on a continuous loop in my head. I can’t think of any rock songs about Huck Finn (prove me wrong!).
Let’s get on with this second installment of the Big Read Recap, covering chapters V-VIII. (Get the re-cap of the first four chapters.)
Oh, church. As painful as Sunday School may have been for Tom on this (or any occasion), the church service cannot be anything but worse. Tom feels even the fly buzzing about is taunting him as he’s forced to sit still and endure. But, in the manner of small boys everywhere, Tom has brought his own entertainment in the form of a “pinch bug,” a black beetle. Well a pinch bug can’t help but do what it was made to, and soon finds itself flung across the room while Tom nurses a sore finger. But that’s for the best – a poodle happens by, and soon the hapless canine’s curiosity makes it the target of the bug’s jaws, to the entertainment of Tom and many other bored members of the congregation.
Not surprisingly, Monday follows Sunday, and brings school with it. Tom wakes to that thought and wastes no time at all in manufacturing illnesses to keep him home. Aunt Polly isn’t so easily fooled, and after extracting a loose tooth from Tom by tying a string around it and sticking a coal in his face (Barbaric? Maybe. Effective? Yes.) sends him on his way. He encounters Huck Finn and lingers just long enough with the outcast boy, exchanging ideas on the best methods for wart removal (Maybe it’s just me, but were 19th century boys particularly afflicted with warts? They certainly had a respectable number of cures.), just long enough to be late. Tom tells the truth in the hopes of being punished for associating with the vagrant Huck, and is rewarded with the punishment of having to sit next to none other than Becky Thatcher. That’ll teach ‘em. Tom blissfully passes the morning wooing his lady love with peaches and chalk drawings – quite successfully, too. He manages to arrange a date to “teach her to draw” over lunch as well as confessing his love via slateboard and gets banished back to the boys’ side of the room for more misadventures, and all before noon.
Tom, absolutely sick with love, cannot focus. So he gives it up. He interests his seatmate in a friendly game of “torture the insect” with a tick he purchased off Huck (cost: one tooth), and soon is so absorbed in the game that the two boys earn a whack from the headmaster with their arguing. But then, finally, lunch has arrived and Tom and Becky ditch their friends and sneak back to the schoolhouse. Tom’s wooing this time is a bit more awkward; he persists though, despite Becky’s distaste for dead rats. He proposes an engagement. Becky has never heard of this custom, and takes a little convincing, but after a little chase-me-chase-me and a stolen kiss, the two are engaged – until Tom goes and spoils it all by bringing up his previous attachment to Amy Lawrence! Becky takes this very badly; tears are involved, and some throwing of gifts. Tom, probably out of equal parts frustration and spite, takes off and doesn’t come back, even after Becky realizes she may have pushed him a little too far and tries to call him back.
Tom wanders aimlessly for a while, alternately feeling sorry for himself and feeling indignant at his mistreatment, even going so far as to wish he was dead; or at least dead temporarily (foreshadowing!). But alas, that cannot be, so he’ll just disappear. To be a soldier? An Indian Brave? A Pirate? Yes! A pirate! If only it was so easy for all of us to choose careers. Tom sets off to amass his worldly wealth in preparation. When he digs up what should be a magically multiplied marble collection only to find out its exactly the same he buried, he becomes convinced of witchy interference (oh, the faith of childhood), and sadly gives up the quest. He doesn’t have long to contemplate his failure, however, as Joe appears at that moment to distract him with the thrilling reenactment of Robin Hood’s adventures. The boys agree that they’d “rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.” Frankly, I don’t blame them. I’ve always imagined being president to be quite the headache.
What do you think of the way Twain portrays church? Is it an agency of spiritual growth or an institution of conformity and rule-enforcement? Also, are there any rock songs about Huck Finn?
About the Author
Diana Hyle is a reference librarian at the Plaza Branch and leader of the Barista's Book Group.