I finished reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (published in 1876) to the Rigdons last week. I accidentally called the book “Som Tawyer” once, a slip-up which brought the house down (elementary-aged kids are an easy crowd), so we referred to the book as such forever after. Do I really need to give a plot summary of Som Tawyer? The idea fills me with antsy-ness and boredom.
Instead, some thoughts about our time in the book:
1.) We dragged out Som Tawyer a little too long due to some holiday travelling interruptions. This is usually the kiss of death with challenging literature. Momentum is key. In fact, if you ever find yourself desiring to quit a book that you feel you should be enjoying with your kids, try committing to reading every day instead of letting it sprawl over weeks and weeks. In this case, however, the Rigdons truly loved the story and had no trouble jumping back after multiple hiatuses. I, on the other hand, felt like we lost a little something by breaking the flow.
2.) I had to introduce the “N” word to my kids. They had never heard it, and they did not understand how such a strange-sounding, nonsense word could be used as a verbal weapon of hatred. We talked about Twain’s decision to use the word and worked through some of the implications. If a writer creates a sympathetic, racist character, does it always mean the writer is a racist? What is the difference between a racist person who writes books, a mean, racist character, an ignorant, racist character, and a racist book? How can we tell what we’re dealing with as readers? I generally don’t censor books that I read aloud. I’ve taught my kids a couple of curse words because the expletives came up in books we were reading, and I opted for a Grand Reveal (and discussion) rather than bastardizing the text and substituting a discordant Oh, phooey or something. However, I couldn’t read the N word in the dialogue portions of Som Tawyer without clearing my throat, pausing, lowering my voice, and pronouncing it with nerdy, Minnesotan precision. My kids would sit up straight and look at me with cocked heads like parakeets, confused by the broken cadence. So after a couple of tries, I substituted it for something else. I felt weird reading the word and weird changing the word. Weird, weird, weird. What am I going to do when we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is up next? The N-word usage is more ubiquitous in that one. I don’t know.
3.) We laughed and laughed throughout the book. My kids have already tucked Som Tawyer into the Super Hilarious Books file in their minds. We doubled-back and reread many sections for sheer funniness. However, my 11 year old daughter said, “There is something sad about Huck, though.” And of course there is something sad about Huck, and to my mind, the whole novel Som Tawyer is mere preamble to Huckleberry Finn, which is the meatier, more shredding book by far.
4.) Twain’s sarcastic treatment of Christianity made me feel heavy this time through the book. Not because I mind exposing my kids to atheistic thinking—on the contrary, I am a Christian mom who intentionally uses books to introduce and explore different philosophical paradigms. Aren’t I progressive??? Nope. More conservative than your great-grandma. But Twain’s religious critiques (coming out of Tom’s mouth) didn’t sound as funny and thoughtful to me as they did when I read the book as a non-Mom. They sounded sour and aggressive and made me want to stare out the window in silence.
Read it or don’t read it. But, come on--read it. I mean, of course.