Want to be transported? We have working transporters that can take us almost anywhere, anytime, to meet anyone we’d like. They’re called books.
I rarely find the time to sit in a comfy chair and read a physical book, but thanks to my commute from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco, I find myself blessed with an ever-increasing number of minutes per day to listen to audiobooks.
I try to alternate between the serious — most recently, “The Jazz of Physics,” suggested by a Quip Tide reader — and the entertaining, currently, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. I wasn’t much older than the titular characters when I first read the Adventures, and haven’t revisited Tom and Huck since then.
In rereading Huck and Tom, I am not transported to a different time or place, but back to the innocent days of youth. It’s a trip well worth taking, and is instructive to us in 2019.
Tom is a freak of nurture. We meet him as a young orphan, adopted by his late mother’s sister, Aunt Polly. Tom has what we would now call “abandonment issues.” He lacks empathy, not anticipating the effects his adventurous schemes (example: suddenly appearing at his own funeral) on those who care for him. Think of him as a young Han Solo playing the pirate, as Tom briefly does, and you’ve got the character.
We first meet Huck in “Sawyer” as a child of nature, his drunkard father having kept him from attending school or church. He has developed ethics through observation. By the end of the book Huck has been adopted by a wealthy widow, who sends him to school, just long enough to learn to read, as it turns out.
In “Finn,” Huck’s absentee father tries to get him back, prompting the boy to run away. He meets an escaping slave, Jim — these events being set in the 1840s, the hateful “N” word usually precedes “Jim” — and the two begin rafting up the Mississippi toward freedom.
Twain makes it clear that his unspoiled “wild child” was taught the era’s racist beliefs (racism being a learned behavior; newborns are free of it). He had been told, and believed, that if he helped a slave escape he would be damned to Perdition. Yet, when he had to decide between turning Jim in or lying to protect Jim at the cost of his soul, his natural ethics overcame his learned prejudice.
We spend our entire lives learning. Sometimes we must unlearn the lessons that divert us from our natural virtues.