Book Reviews

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Cat illustration from Tom Sawyer by Thomas Hart Benton

Oh Tom and Huck, the scourges of childhood befall you with astonishing regularity. Whether it’s Injun Joe, dark caves, or an endless parade of preachers, teachers, and other interfering adults, the children of St. Petersburg can handle it all. But there’s something even more sinister lurking in these pages.

Zombies!       

Zombie cats to be specific.

“What?” You may say, “There are no zombie cats in Tom Sawyer!” But this is where I will say, “You are mistaken, my friend.” And let me tell you why. 

Mark Twain was a writer who knew his craft. He was incredibly forward thinking. He knew that while the zombie phenomenon was to be an important development in the literature of the future, his audience in the 1880s had no interest in reading about zombies.

So, in order to work the undead into his novel of 19th century rural life in Missouri, he initiates a cover up. He disguises the plague. He puts a veneer of civility over the whole ugly mess. He uses euphemisms.

Alert readers will notice that there’s a plethora of dead cats in Tom Sawyer. Expired felines appear on virtually every other page. This could be explained away as just the characters’ boyhood fascination with dead animals. But the real explanation is zombies.

Tom Sawyer cover

If readers were doubting that Tom Sawyer was the quintessential boy’s book, the final three chapters will dispel any doubt. Twain folds in every fantasy any boy has ever entertained in the conclusion to his first solo effort to write a novel.

Why, looky here:

Chapter XXXII

Right after being praised for his ingenuity and bravery while lost in the cavern, Tom is told that no other child will ever get lost in the cave. Judge Thatcher has had the entrance blocked with a boiled iron door.

Tom gets to play knight to the rescue again as he breathlessly informs the Judge that Injun Joe is still in the cave. Once the Judge, Tom, and several men arrive to pry the iron door open, they are met with a gruesome sight. Injun Joe lies dead at the entrance to the cave. Since he died alone, our narrator speculates, in typical hyperbolic boy-language that Injun Joe had hacked away at the iron door with his Bowie knife “in order to be doing something.” The lack of candle stubs and the remains of bat claws must mean that Injun Joe had done the best he could to keep from starving, but in the end, it wasn’t good enough. It was a grisly death worthy of an active imagination.

Kepler's Witch book cover

In a book about a 17th century astronomer the reader expects to learn something of the stars and planets along with the standard biographical details. Religious wars and witchcraft, both prevalent at that period, might show up as well.

Kepler’s Witch by James Connor examines the life of German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Born in the late 16th century, Kepler first noticed the wonders of the heavens when his mother showed him the comet of 1577 at the age of six.

Because of his inquisitive nature, his family saw that he received a good education. Religion became another early influence for the young astronomer as his family embraced the growing Lutheranism of the German states. Astronomy became a vehicle to try to work out the mind of God.

While mathematics and the heavens held an interest, Kepler pursued his studies intending to enter the ministry. He also became skilled in astrology by writing horoscopes, which he continued throughout his life. He took his first professional position as a teacher of mathematics in Graz, Austria.

Tom Saywer 1st Edition Cover

Whether you are a child or an adult, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a wonderful read. But isn’t it amazing how different the experience is reading the book as a child versus reading it as an adult?

Looking back on reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a youth, it rejuvenates memories of a spooky graveyard, playing pranks on adults and exploring life and everything in it to its fullest. There was danger, adventure, and great mysteries to be solved within its covers.

As an adult, much bolder issues blot the story’s pages – discrimination based on social class, the effects of alcoholism, and slavery, to name a few. While these deeper social elements embedded within the text don’t ruin the second reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, they do add a few pounds of emotional weight and a few layers of literary meat to its juvenile bones that didn’t come with the original childhood reading.

As a mature reader, Chapters XXIX-XXXII become particularly interesting as several characters stop being one-dimensional and begin to develop outside of their stereotype. Huck is a perfect example. For the first time in the story, he is seen without Tom, making his own decisions and choices. Twain finally allows readers to see Huck as not just the poor kid in the village who everyone pities and avoids, but as a secret hero who helps save the Widow Douglas’s life.

Winter's Bone book cover

Many of us have fallen on hard times in this economy. We see the effects all around us, yet most of us still have our basic needs met. In the novel Winter’s Bone by Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell, Ree Dolly is not afforded the same luxuries that some of us take for granted.

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