The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

by Mark Twain

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 10-adult

A kid who always gets into trouble

Here's the odd thing: until just now (age 49!), I'd never read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I'd read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn growing up, a number of times, and then a couple more since growing up.

It's a great book. But I'd never read what was, in effect, its prequel.

Of course, we all know the political debate that surrounds Twain's classic Huck.

Black folk tend to argue against the book being taught in the schools because of the prodigious use of the "N" word. They're pitted against teachers who love Huck Finn because it IS a classic piece of literature. Librarians defend it as well, because librarians are anti-censorship.

The pro argument is that despite the word, it is runaway slave Jim who proves himself far and away the most decent character in the book (or at least the most decent adult character). Thus the use of the "N" word is essentially an indictment of the people who use it, and their culture.

To me, while the pro argument is perfectly logical, it can't be applied to the totality of grade school and high school readers. We can't trust each and every one of these students to read with enough seriousness and sophistication to recognize Jim's greater humanity. Thus Twain's use of the word can be taken by youngsters simply as permission to put it to use themselves. And guess what?...

That same word appears rather liberally in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and here's the unfortunate truth: this earlier book provides no context encouraging readers to condemn its use. (I suspect that's why you don't see nearly so many teachers encouraging its use in the classroom.)

That lack of context lessened this reviewer's enjoyment of a book that, in terms of literary merit and pure storytelling, is a classic in its own right.

Book review - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

As the title implies, the book reads more as a sequence of distinct adventures featuring the rambunctious and charismatic title character than a beginning-to-end narrative. The one throughline that ties the whole book together - and does so delightfully - is the age-appropriate courtship of Tom and Becky Thatcher.

Never has a schoolboy crush been captured so accurately and yet colorfully. Tom, whose lack of impulse control pretty much drives the sequence of stories, is thrown into overdrive by Becky's mere presence. He's driven to show off even more than usual, and she finds that attractive. Still, she finds plenty of reasons to reject him too, and the resultant back and forth is charming. In the end Tom does something selfless and proves himself true.

And I'm not going to tell you what is.

Tom's boyish adventures are also a joy. He's a little too fearless and drawn to drama. We can infer that he's a heck of a reader; we never see him read, but the adventures he's driven to - being a pirate, a robber, a treasure hunter - are clearly drawn from the world of fiction.

He gets into real danger (dragging friends along with him) and is assumed to have died by his long-suffering Aunt Polly and his hometown at large no less than twice. Indeed, he almost does die once, and his eventual willingness to testify to a murder he witnessed clearly puts him at risk yet another time.

That word Adventures is not to be taken lightly!

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - summary

Twain's narration is colorful, opinionated and a joy to read. Clearly he's reveling in remembering his own boyhood; indeed the book's fictional St. Petersburg is said to represent Twain's own boyhood town of Hannibal, Missouri.

Missouri was a slave state.

And while we don't meet any blacks in the book, it's worth noting that the story's villain is Injun Joe, a "murderin' half-breed" who frames another man for a killing and has plans to maim a widow for a slight laid at the feet of her dead husband.

Which all goes to say that this reviewer highly recommends The Adventures of Tom Sawyer...but only for reading at home, with caring parents to help contextualize the subject matter in time and place.

Reviewer's note: Publisher NewSouth Books has done something you might find interesting. While combining Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn into a single narrative (Huck figures prominently in Tom's adventures) they have also replaced the hateful N-word.

More public domain children's classics.

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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