Reviews | February 01, 2018
Whatever Happened to Huckleberry Finn? Four Recent Huck Finn Sequels
Huck Out West by Robert Coover. W. W. Norton & Co., 2017, 308 pp., $26.95 (hardcover).
The Boy in His Winter: an American Novel by Norman Lock. Bellevue Literary Press, 2014, 190 pp., $14.95 (paper).
The Adventures of Joe Harper by Phong Nguyen. Outpost19, 2016, 257 pp. (paper).
My Jim by Nancy Rawles. Three Rivers Press, 2005, 190 pp., $12.95 (paper).
Mark Twain published two sequels to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The first was Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894). The other was Tom Sawyer, Detective, published two years later. Previously, he’d begun a third installment, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians. He didn’t finish it.
Huck narrates both of Twain’s finished sequels. In Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom, Huck, and Jim see a hot air balloon exhibition. They climb aboard the balloon, and its inventor, a professor, takes them on an unplanned trip across the United States and the Atlantic Ocean. The professor gets unhinged, so in order to save the others, Tom murders him. The surviving trio takes the balloon to Egypt and sees the Sphinx. In Tom Sawyer, Detective, Tom and Huck solve the mystery of a lost twin and missing diamond. It is a short book.
Neither sequel brings much to the Tom and Huck franchise that wasn’t there already. Both seem to have been written more out of a sense of obligation or need for money than an interest in expanding on or altering readers’ perception of the original. They are more Die Hard 2 than Gremlins 2, more Jaws: The Revenge than The Empire Strikes Back.
Other writers since Twain have adopted his characters as their own and put them to work in new sequels to Huck Finn—and it’s no mystery why. Huck Finn is not just any novel; it is an American epic, if there ever has been one. It is a book that does not recede with time, a classic that does not meet Twain’s description of “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” because lots of people have read it. If they haven’t read it because they wanted to, they were probably forced to read it in school.
Still, I was taken aback, when it dawned on me at my local library that no fewer than three sequels to Huck Finn had been published in the last three years. Why, I wondered, have writers shown such interest lately in continuing a narrative that dates to 1884? We are not approaching a Huck Finn centennial.
The other hypothesis I put forward, prior to reading the new sequels, was that we are at a stage in history when people feel threatened by social upheaval. We are all more conscious than we have been at any time in recent memory of how we live at the mercy of the nation’s shortcomings, moral and otherwise. Very bad things appear to be on the horizon, as they were for Huck and Jim, rafting down the Mississippi not long before the Civil War. Like Huck aboard his raft with Jim, the good people of the here and now want to do the right thing and are doing their best, while forces beyond our direct control seem to slouch their way to ruin and drag us with them. For this reason, maybe, writers have been reviving Huck, to create new stories that will tell us about ourselves and the land we inhabit.
The Boy in His Winter: An American Novel is the first of the newest Huck Finn sequels to be published and the first installment in Norman Lock’s American Novels series. Each novel in the series addresses the work of a prominent writer in American literature: Walt Whitman in American Meteor (2015); Henry David Thoreau in A Fugitive in Walden Woods (2017). The Boy in His Winter continues the narrative of Huck and Jim by extending their trip down the Mississippi. After the events that end Huck Finn, the two get back on the raft and resume floating south.
Lock’s Huck is a well-spoken Huck; the novel does not revive Twain’s use of dialect, which Huck deplores. He rebukes Twain for getting Jim’s speech and so many other things wrong; he is, as he tells the story, all too familiar with Huck Finn the novel. “Mark Twain passed his book off as if I had written it myself,” he complains, but “it was none of my doing. Frankly, I resent the words he put in my mouth.”
Huck narrates A Boy in His Winter from the year 2077, for as Jim and Huck continue down the Mississippi, time accelerates. They pass through the Civil War, at which time Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer, who is serving on a Confederate warship. In Baton Rouge, in 1919, Jim and Huck hear jazz music for the first time. A musician climbs aboard their raft and tells them how the Civil War ended. Jim steps off the raft in Louisiana, some years later, and is lynched the same day. Huck continues alone, until he washes up in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The Boy in His Winter is inspired by H. G. Wells as much as it is by Mark Twain; it is no coincidence that on Huck’s continued journey he reads The Time Machine and sees his trip reflected in it. Lock’s novel, too, has more in common with Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad than it does with Huck Finn, as it puts familiar characters in the service of a story that departs dramatically from their customary context.
The Boy in His Winter is, in some ways, a corrective to Huck Finn. Throughout the novel, Huck complains that he and Jim spoke more clearly, even prettily, than Twain let on. When Huck sees Tom a second time, visiting him on his deathbed, he confesses to us his “guilt in the matter of Jim.” “I mistreated him,” Huck explains. “Not in the ordinary way of a bully or an ignorant white child lording it over a black man . . . But I wrong Jim by reconstructing him in these pages. I’ve done to him what Twain did to me because I need Jim with me once again and cannot resurrect him any other way . . . I need Jim to make me real.” In the eyes of Lock’s Huck, to represent Jim is to misrepresent him, if only slightly, and do him some measure of harm.
This sequel is a careful book; it is so careful, in fact, that its embrace of fantasy in the form of Huck and Jim’s mysterious time travel is overshadowed by Huck’s insistence on setting the record straight. The original Huck Finn, with its flawed protagonist, racist language, and buffoonery is a product of its time. Lock portrays Huck as a narrator who is all too aware of these thorny things. Self-aware and circumspect, he has been rehabilitated. He takes things seriously that deserve to be taken seriously, but he isn’t quite as much fun as he once was.
The Boy in His Winter is the story of a raft that doubles as a time machine and the famous duo who travel on it; but just as much as that, it is about a fictional character who has been given the chance to look around, see how he has been used, and make complaints.
Huck Out West is Robert Coover’s take on the fate of Huck after the events of Huck Finn. It is Coover’s first book since The Brunist Day of Wrath, a sequel to his own first novel, The Origin of the Brunists. And while it is tempting to begin addressing Huck Out West by pointing out how linear and otherwise conventional a narrative it is—which may appear remarkable, given that it comes from the author of “The Babysitter” and other formal experiments—its approachability isn’t so remarkable, really. With Huck Out West, Coover only reminds us how at home he is with conventionally structured narratives, as he adapts the voice, tone, and episodic nature of Huck Finn to his own novel seamlessly.
In Coover’s rendition, Huck and Tom follow up their prior adventures by going west to ride for the Pony Express. When that falls through, Tom returns east to marry Becky Thatcher, while Huck goes to live among the Lakota Sioux. They don’t take him seriously—“They used me for laughs,” he admits—but they accept him, more or less.
Huck falls in with a band of criminals, reuniting with Ben Rogers, a friend from the early pages of Huck Finn. He takes a bath and hears that the Civil War is over and Lincoln is dead. He spends some of his time with a paranoid, self-pitying white prospector named Deadwood and more of his time with Eeteh, a Lakota Sioux who tells stories about the trickster Coyote—which, by the time they reach the reader, are filtered through Huck’s partial misunderstanding. Looming over Huck at all times is the threat of General Hard Ass catching up with him; Huck deserted his company before the start of the novel, and the General is likely to have him executed.
Huck and the novel ramble until word gets out that Deadwood has struck gold. More white people begin to arrive, and in their way they begin to civilize the place. “Most of the new emigrants,” Huck explains, “was heading out to mine the cricks and hills, though some was setting up to mine the miners.”
Some of the newcomers move into Huck’s campsite. They put him on trial and sentence him to death. He is rescued by the most dangerous man of all: Tom Sawyer, who arrives on a white horse and sets to work colonizing the place. “Tom was back,” Huck says, “and the day was alive again, lit up and frisky. In less’n one of them, he rescued a pard from lynching, showed off his shooting and lasso tricks, got himself elected mayor-govner of Deadwood Gulch, thought up a bunch a new laws, captured gangs a thieves and murderers, tried and hung some robbers.” Tom is a federal overmarshal, he says. He claims “a legal jury’s diction over the whole Territory.”
Smart, entitled, and completely self-interested, Tom is manifest destiny in human form. When Huck asks what his problem is with Indians, Tom says, “I DON’T hate them, Huck! I ain’t got NOTHING against them. Only, we’re building something grand out here, ocean to ocean, and they’re in the way. Some day, we’ll make statues of them, like they was our own heroes. First, though, we got to kill them all.” Fully grown, he is the man Twain’s young Tom was slated to become if no one ever set him straight. Huck is not up to that task; “Tom was mountains smarter,” he admits. “I should give him all the thinking to do for me and him both.”
It does not take long for Huck’s enthusiasm at Tom’s arrival to sour, for his affection for the Lakota to collide with Tom’s interest in murdering them, and for Tom’s drive to dominate the region—while enriching himself—to lead him to conclude that Huck is of no use to him.
On the way to that inevitability, other figures from Twain’s novels appear—for instance, Jim, who is traveling with a band of missionaries to go and convert the indigenous heathen. It is a relief for Huck to see Jim; soon after the events of Huck Finn, Tom sold Jim back into slavery. Jim, Tom rationalized, is “probably happier when he has someone telling him what to do.” As Huck comes to understand, Tom was wrong about that.
Huck’s goal in Huck Out West is much like his goal in Twain’s novel. Set against a backdrop of horrors much larger than himself—slavery on one hand, westward expansion on the other—Huck wants to do what little good he can, even if what he can do is very little. He sees wrongdoing for what it is and tries to prevent it. But there is a way in which Huck Out West brings Huck down to size and shows us just how helpless he is against the machinations of the Tom Sawyers who have made the world he scrapes by in.
Phong Nguyen’s first novel, The Adventures of Joe Harper, approaches Huck Finn from a slightly different angle, in that it leaves Huck out altogether. It is also the most successfully funny of the books reviewed here. The protagonist is one of Tom and Huck’s childhood friends. Early in Huck Finn, he accompanies the two to an island, where they live momentarily as “robbers.” At the start of Joe Harper, Joe is on his way back to Missouri to live as a hermit, having spent ten years with Tom Sawyer as a real pirate, on a boat.
Soon after the novel begins, Joe meets a Chinese-American man named Lee—though it is not entirely clear whether Lee’s ancestry can be traced to China or elsewhere on the Asian continent. Joe Harper as narrator is not sensitive to these nuances; like everyone else, he is content to call Lee a “Chinaman” and leave it at that.
Soon after he meets Lee, Joe chooses to postpone living as a hermit in favor of hopping trains with Lee on a journey westward. They are joined, intermittently, by Ruth, a runaway from the Pennsylvania Dutch who has escaped her arranged marriage to the only eligible bachelor in her community.
On the road, as the title promises, the three of them have adventures. In Salina, they barely escape a one-eyed mastiff notorious for using its powerful jaws to dismember hobos. Later, they meet Brigham Young. Joe narrates the novel, but the focus shifts, again and again, to Lee. He is not easy to read—or he’s not easy for Joe to read—and for this and other reasons he is the novel’s most intriguing character. In an America that is still in the process of taking shape, and in which he was born, Lee is nevertheless an outsider. He is conspicuously absent from one important scene because it takes place in a bar that won’t allow him in. “But when the last of us walked in the door, which was Lee,” Joe explains, the owner “said with a frown, ‘who’s the yeller feller?’”
Lee’s reaction is telling. “Ruther than bark back, like I seen him do many a time,” Joe tells us, “Lee took a big step back out the door, put his hand on my shoulder—where I felt his hand a-trembling—and says, ‘I’ll catch up with you, Joe.’”
Joe tries to make sense of what’s happened, wondering why Lee would be frightened. When he sees “four Johnny Laws was playing seven-up, surrounded by empty cups,” it dawns on him that Lee’s status makes him vulnerable to the whims of the police.
In this way, we see Joe slowly come to understand Lee’s uncertain place in the country that produced him. The evolution of Joe’s grasp on this is one of the novel’s overarching narratives, and his eventual understanding is as flawed as it is hard-won. Tom Sawyer, when he finally returns, plays a pivotal role in his education.
Joe Harper, like Huck Finn, tells a story with vast moral implications through the eyes of a character who does not necessarily recognize or fully comprehend those implications. The reader is an audience to injustice that the narrator seems to be aware of but does not dwell on for long, either because it doesn’t occur to him to ponder it at length, or because he just isn’t up to the task.
This dimension of the novel comes to the fore when Joe, Ruth, and Lee are imprisoned in Kansas “‘for being rotten, no-good tramps.’” Joe is sent to work on a chain gang, but Lee is not. “‘I talked to de men,’” Ruth explains, “‘and dey agreed dat if a Chinaman vere too stay in a regular prison, dere vould be violence.’” So they have put Lee in “de lady’s prison.” Lee later negotiates for his friends’ release. The others are to be let go, if he is willing to work off his sentence for the next five years. Ruth says, “‘In de million-dollar circles, having a Chinaman as a house-servant is a zymbol of high status.’”
“‘Well, that ain’t right!’” exclaims Joe correctly and with knee-jerk simplicity. At this and other moments, he exhibits a reflexive style of moral rectitude, a willingness to stick up for those who can’t, which reminds us of what propelled Huck on his adventure with Jim in the first place. We remain with Joe long enough to see him reach the limit of this kind of instinctive righteousness.
I started this review wanting to know why all three of these Huck Finn sequels came into being in such temporal proximity to one another. Why so much, I wondered, and all at once?
But I am no closer, now, to knowing what has led so many people to write Huck Finn sequels than I was before I read any of them. As long as I am coming clean, I should confess that in the brains department I am more of a Huck Finn than a Tom Sawyer.
And reading these novels has raised another issue: the question of what it is everyone seems to have against Tom Sawyer. In The Boy in His Winter, Tom is in the Confederate navy. It’s not a completely damning place to put him, but he is on the wrong side of history. In Huck Out West, Tom is a US Marshal who executes people without due process and puts his friends in danger. In The Adventures of Joe Harper, Tom, when at last he arrives, is a US Marshal who executes people without a moment’s hesitation and has no sense of loyalty to anyone.
Yet Twain didn’t seem to have a problem with Tom. Tom is the star of his Huck Finn sequels; he solves a mystery and takes a long-distance balloon trip. The only person he kills is the balloonist professor, and the professor was asking for it. Tom is the hero, in these novels, and Huck is his chronicler. Jim is either there for comic relief or not there at all.
As Twain portrays him, Tom is a kid with a bloody imagination, but he doesn’t really do anything to hurt people. He is not a raving lunatic, just an everyday, merciless child. Sure, as everyone knows, at the end of Huck Finn, Tom catches up with Huck and Jim, at which point Jim has been recaptured. He knows Jim has been granted his freedom, but he keeps that to himself. He stages a pretend escape, which no one else knows is only pretend. If you’re like me, and you reread the novel so long after the first time you read it that you’ve forgotten the end, Tom’s shenanigans can be a genuine source of mirth. Suspense and despair build up around Jim’s nonescape, and then Tom matter-of-factly tells Huck that Jim is free. All of the misery that awaited Jim down the river is still there, but it does not wait for Jim. This gives way to relief. In my life, I don’t get enough relief. I will take it where I can get it.
Still, in the world of the novel, it sucks that Tom doesn’t tell Jim he is free in the first place. Given how he behaves, at the end of Huck Finn, it’s easy to see what people have against him. No one likes the guy who knows something he should tell other people but doesn’t; it can be hard to like the someone who uses his smarts to serve his own interests or no one’s interests at all.
Tom appears to be constantly oblivious to what other people want and expect from him. He is hell-bent on looking out for himself. It is no doubt possible to draw a direct line from Tom tricking his friends into painting a fence to Tom disregarding the value of human life and the safety of his friends. It takes not assuming that young boys with bad imaginations will be reformed. It takes assuming, wrongly, that someone will put him in his place.
As I was reading the three books I have now discussed, I could not help but project another sequel to Huck Finn, one that hasn’t been written: a Huck Finn sequel that has a larger role for Becky Thatcher, maybe one that puts her at its center.
She shows up in the three recent sequels. In The Boy in His Winter, she is an apparition Huck sees in a dream. She undoes her blouse and asks, “‘Do you want to see my titties?’” “‘You’re Tom’s girl!’” Huck protests, before he wakes up. In Huck Out West, Becky is a prostitute. Tom got her pregnant, didn’t marry her, and left her behind. Her fate suits the novel; since she was Tom’s love interest early in life and Tom is a wrecker of people and things, then it is only natural that she be—in nineteenth-century terms—wrecked.
But I found that I wanted, as I read these three books, a fourth book that would indulge the female perspective. What I wanted turned out to exist already, in the form of My Jim, the third novel by American Book Award-winning author Nancy Rawles. Published in 2005, My Jim is written from the perspective of Sadie Watson, Jim’s wife and fellow slave. While Jim mentions his family in Huck Finn, they don’t appear in the novel, nor do we learn much about them. Rawles fills this enormous blank space and returns us to Huck Finn with fresh eyes.
Sadie looks out at the world from inside a horror show that Huck and Tom live in close proximity to but never acknowledge outright. At no point are we allowed to forget that Sadie inhabits a hellscape, where those who claim her as property take everything and give nothing back. Sadie is hardened by the life she is made to lead, as her role on the plantation clarifies with time. She comes to be seen as a healer, or a sort of necessary witch; in addition to performing her share of backbreaking labor, the others turn to her for natural remedies. Even the master demands her help when his life is in danger and the doctor is far away.
Sadie grows up with Jim. They eventually marry. They have children, watch them grow and suffer, and plan their escape. “When he runs I gonna run with him,” she explains. “We leaves Lizbeth with Cora. When we gets our freedom we gonna work to buy our Lizbeth.” It doesn’t happen. “One morning,” says Sadie, “Emma wake up to tell me Jim run off.”
As the events of one of the most famous novels of all time play out on the edge of her awareness, she doesn’t know what is happening. That we know very well what Jim is doing adds an unmistakable charge to her narrative, which is already electric. Sadie’s story, up to this point, is so immersive and so utterly heartbreaking that it is easy to forget what approaches all along, the improbable trip that Jim takes with Huck.
Sadie is tortured and interrogated, but she doesn’t know where Jim is. When she hears that his beloved hat has turned up, “floating in the Mississippi,” she says, “Thats all the proof anybody need . . . Nigger never without his hat. Sooner or later his head gonna come looking for it.”
Sadie hears, later, that Jim isn’t dead, but “Traveling with a skinny white boy.” Her life goes on. She is sold; she outlives the Civil War; when slavery ends, she wanders until she remarries and finds work. She sees Jim one more time and tells him, “I been all kind of people since you seen me last. Aint wants to talk bout that now. Them days on the Watson place a long time gone but seeing you brings them back. Them days when we both young and free with ourselves.”
It is a way of phrasing their prior life together that points to the bitter irony of their situation. At a time when they were anything but free, they could make choices within the narrow confines in which they lived; now that they are free from slavery, they are bound to the past they have survived.
Jim explains where he went with Huck, and why. “I helps him run,” says Jim. “He help me run.” When Jim tells Sadie his name, she knows who he’s talking about; she recalls Huck:
I remembers. I seen that boy one day in town. I remembers him cause he aint wearing nothing but a shirt. Like all the slave children. He just a little boy then. Look like he aint belong to nobody. Miss Watson seen me looking at him. Thats Huckleberry she say. Folks call him that cause he live off the wild huckleberry bushes. And scraps people throw they dogs. A shame how some folks live she say. Child aint even got a proper name.
In a narrative that depicts people suffering under some of the most abject and harrowing conditions ever forced on human beings by other human beings, it is stunning to hear that the neglected Huck was once looked on with such sympathy. Through Sadie’s eyes, he is renewed for us.
There are more sequels to Huck Finn. In 1970, John Seelye came out with The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or there’s the Australian writer Greg Matthews’s The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from 1983. And in 2003, Lee Nelson published a finished version of Mark Twain’s unfinished third sequel to Huck Finn. I suspect that if I were to do more digging, I would unearth a chain of Huck Finn sequels reaching all the way back to 1884.
And people are bound to write more Huck Finn sequels and adaptations. Someone will no doubt publish a retelling of Huck Finn in which Jim is a werewolf or the raft gets upended by the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It will be a mash-up. It will sell four million copies. There could be one every ten years, with similar clusters to the one we’ve seen recently, in which three or four come in quick succession.
This review could go on longer, but I doubt it would bring me closer to knowing why there have been so many Huck Finn sequels, and all at once. Maybe the only way to truly know would be for me to write my own.
But I am not going to do that. There are a lot of other things I need to do.
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