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Adventures With Tom Sawyer

Observer Scene | Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The first time we hear his name, his Aunt is screaming it. When we saygoodbye at novel’s end, the sometimes noble, often mischievous, but always God-fearing 10-year-old Mississippi river boy has walked down the aisle at his own funeral, used reverse-psychology to wiggle out of a day’s labor,wooed and broken and broken twice and wooed again a young girl’s heart, and most importantly, transformed a Missouri town. I’m talking about Tom Sawyer.ISunday night marked my return to the lives of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and before I knew it, hours had gone by, their story was over, and I felt satisfyingly charmed.Yet it is not just the boy’s daring adventures, nor their comical follies oreven their glorious deeds that makes “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” so appealing. No, in fact, much of it has to do with the raconteur, the narrator himself.There is no one more infatuated with or protective of Tom than the narrator. He has high hopes for the boy and writes about him with great fondness, even pulling the curtains on a scene early rather than have Tom’s shame at confusing the Old and New Testaments put on display: “Let us draw the curtain of charity of the rest of the scene.” The narrator sets Tom upon a pedestal from which he refuses to have the young man fall, placing him sublimely above the rest of the town’s otherwise ignorant youth. However, as a product of his often bigoted age, Tom’s character is consequently flawed. But before one begins to think of reasons to knock the young Sawyer of his perch, we must pause a moment and ruminate on the significance of this dashing young man. Tom Sawyer understands human nature.The scene is timeless. Tom, resigned to punishment, stands whitewashing his Aunt’s fence. Next we see Ben “Steamboat” Rogers chewing on an apple, eyeing Tom, and brimming in anticipation of the mockery to follow. Then suddenly Ben is washing the fence, while Tom, savoring the apple, reclines in the shade. Before long scores of boys have happened along and before the afternoon is up the whole fence has been painted and our glorious miscreant hasn’t even moved a muscle. The narrator doesn’t hesitate to laud Tom’s crowning achievement: “[Tom] had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it-namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”Tom Sawyer is also a romantic. He entices Becky Thatcher, the daughter of the prominent Judge Thatcher, to promise him her hand at age ten. Before the week is up he breaks her heart, not once, but twice. Yet despite overwhelming adversity the courageous boy never loses heart, and when the teacher discovers that a student has torn of his precious textbooks Tom stands up before the entire class and takes responsibility for a crime he didn’t commit, preserving the dignity of the guilty party. Becky Thatcher swoons, “Tom, how could you be so noble.”But most importantly, Tom Sawyer is a social worker. Wwhen he, Huck and Joe Harper show up to their own funeral-a consequence of having run away to play pirates while their families mourned after their disappearance-and Tom and the Harper boy receive a smattering of kisses and affection from their families, Tom notices that Huck is receiving only bitter stares. Taking it upon himself to right this egregious wrong, Tom exclaims, “Somebody’s got to be glad to see Huck!” And they are.The story of Tom Sawyer is a reflection of something timeless about Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo., something as unchanging and constant as the Mississippi itself. It is a subject Twain seems to have written most affectionately about. Childhood. And it still have much to teach us.