Friday, February 28, 2014

Tom Sawyer, American classic

With great relief many of us are turning the calendars to March. 

February in a large part of the country poured on winter like few of us have experienced before. There's no pretense at sadness at we put the present month into the record book.

If you thrive on winter reading this was the year to do it. You were smart (or clairvoyant) if you collected a stack of books early in the season. You had all the time in the world this winter to plow through them.

If you had titles with text which mesmerized you might not have lifted your head from your books all winter long. 

You may actually have missed some of the frightful weather (or forecasts), so lost you were in the entertainment of your selected seasonal companions.

The books I put together for winter reading have seen me through.There are only a few chapters in a couple books still to do.

Tom Sawyer was the latest book from out of my winter stack to be completed.

It's satisfying to be on target with your reading goals. This book made the cutoff date with less than a week to go. It was finished before spring (as meteorologists determine spring, which is March 1).

The first and only read of Tom Sawyer I recall was as a student. It may have been classroom assigned reading or it fell in with books picked up, like now, to read out of curiosity or interest or from being recommended. 

I read books in those younger days like folks eat corn on the cob. One munch leads to another. You keep moving along the row and it's all so good and you never stop and you don't look up until you reach for another.

But that's all so long ago. One never quite reads in the same way as when you're young.

My single recalled incident from the original reading of the book is of Tom Sawyer finagling his friends to paint the fence for him.

The fence painting was the job  his Aunt Polly (his dead mother's sister) set for him as a task to punish him for incorrigibility of behavior. 

Tom Sawyer cleverly got his friends to do the work by pretense. He made it look an enviable thing to be whitewashing the board fence. 

The other kids itched to have a go of it. Reluctant in appearance, but rejoicing all the while, he let each have their turn. 

The painting got done quickly with ample help and our hero had back his Saturday holiday.

"Here's a manipulator." My juvenile mind was swift to sort the title character by personality and mode of operation. My mental picture of Tom Sawyer in all the years since is of that fence painting scene.

Tom Sawyer updated himself through my current reading of the book. Yes, he has his moments of glory using cagey methods. He gets by with some of them.

If he does stop to reason the next step he's about to take there's usually cunning behind his decision. He doesn't mind bending the rules or veracity itself to advance his own end. Tom Sawyer has his interests at heart.

This contriving youth is the Tom Sawyer remembered from the first reading of the book. I picked him out this time too but there was also now recognition of situations which didn't turn out for him, some of which he had no hand in and the punishment still came down on him.

Nineteenth-century boyhood played out against the banks and levees of the Mississippi River at a crucial era of American expansion - a time when small-town boys played, plotted against each other, dreamed big dreams and dared their fears and ran from them as well - is conveyed brilliantly by the witty observative Samuel Clemens (writing under the name Mark Twain)

Twain, a Missouri native, puts his growing-up years along the Mississippi River as rich material into Tom Sawyer. The dialect and detail comes from his own experience of the story he writes.

Aunt Polly hardly registered in my first read. If thought about at all it was as a gray-haired old woman who was always scolding. She was in a continual vexed state with Tom who tried her sorely. 

This time around she struck me as an exasperated soul with good intentions. She's prone to act hastily in her punishment of Tom but has her hands full with him and feels sometimes she has nowhere to turn.

She fixes to reform him one way or another even if it's the undoing of her or him, as she sometimes sighs it might be. She's concerned for the ultimate results of where his behavior will take him.

Once I got past assessing Tom Sawyer for the fence whitewashing episode I accepted him differently.

His scrapes (mostly brought on by himself) and his moments of grace (where he shows courage or tenderness, even if in fleeting revelations of affection or loyalty, and doing his best to hide his honest caring) are seen in a fresh light. The literary character that is Tom Sawyer comes better into view.

I now can see him as the personification of rambunctious and naturally high spirited young living. 

Tom Sawyer embodies our youthful stages. In the phase which is youth we're creative, we're rebellious.

We want to undo what has been set before us and do for our own. We want to kick off the traces, be free to be the agents of our own dreams. 

We want to let our imaginations roam wherever they will, whether it is to run away and be a pirate or robber or star in a traveling circus, as piques Tom Sawyer's ambitions, or find fresh material strictly our own.

And so often, over and over, we're reeled back as Tom is, in one situation after another, and in one relationship and then another, by the equal force of reality.

Tom Sawyer came to the last page leaving me with a village of new friends to return to and certainly to remember more markedly than before.

A couple days later I was at a library not previously visited. A friend was resting on the bench at the library door and who it was made me smile.

It was Mark Twain himself. It was Samuel Clemens done up dandy as a statue and placed at the library entrance.

Twain looks relaxed and congenial in the pose that has been decided for him.

Call it coincidence. Or call it not. But my thought is that he was out there on that bench waiting for me. 

He was letting me know that as an author he was glad I enjoyed, and was diverted from the moment at hand, by a subsequent reading of his famous book.

Ro Giencke - February 28, 2014

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