Last night, I sat down with my wife and our three children, opened the 135th anniversary edition of Tom Sawyer (with all the original illustrations), and began to read out loud.
I really didn’t know what to expect, either from my 21st century kids, suffused with loves of both literature and nick @ nite; or from the book itself, which I hadn’t opened since college at the latest, if not high school. I remembered liking it, but in an “it’s good for you” kind of way. I remembered the story, but had no memory of the words, of the style. I knew it was less earnest than Huck Finn, less noble—and taught less often in literature class.
What I didn’t remember, and maybe never knew or appreciated until last night, is that Tom Sawyer is a modern upper-middle-grade novel (albeit with a much more advanced vocabulary). And it’s hilarious. And Mark Twain knew exactly what he was doing, and was stunningly brilliant, even while making three upper west side tweens collapse on a couch, punching each other in order to make one of them “holler ‘nuff.” And they kept at it the rest of the night, to the point where I heard, an hour after they should have been in bed, my eight year old gleefully yelling at her overmatched sister to “holler ‘nuff, Jessie—holler ‘nuff…DAD! She won’t do it!” I couldn’t even get mad.
From the standpoint of structure, the first chapter of Tom Sawyer does absolutely everything I want my writers to do in 2012. It gets directly into action, but sets the scene. It introduces almost all the main characters (in the first 9 pages), makes the reader understand the personality of the protagonist through action rather than exposition (for the most part), and sets up several conflicts. And while my kids may have had a hard time chewing on a phrase like “her resolution to turn his Saturday holiday into captivity at hard labor became adamantine in its firmness,” they had no trouble at all understanding the showdown on the street between Tom and an as yet unnamed antagonist:
“I can lick you!”
“I’d like to see you try it.”
“Well I can do it.”
“No you can’t, either.”
“Yes I can.”
“No you can’t.”
This is perfect down to the way each line gets shorter, but more passionate; sentences turn into exclamations and grunts, until they boys are rolling on the street "and covered themselves in dust and glory.”
What I didn’t realize however, as I read this to my kids, was that Twain knew exactly how he wanted to market this book—that he was thoroughly modern in his desire to cross over from the children’s book audience to the mass market. As he says in his Preface (and remember, this is in 1876!),
“Although this book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.”
And of course, those “queer enterprises” revolved around painting fences and playing hooky and fooling the adults, and sometimes getting caught and being in trouble, and trying to impress the girl next door and figuring out whether your instincts are good or bad, and whether you can make the stranger facing you on the street holler “’nuff.”
This isn’t a call for a return to a simpler world. Rather, it’s a simple expression of admiration for a writer who was modern for 2012…in 1876. Jeez, I can’t wait till Chapter 2!