Book Review: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain

June 7, 2008

I like Twain as quote-worthy curmudgeon. I like his cynical way of writing. But, alas, I don’t really like Tom Sawyer.

It’s a melodrama that, while purporting to narrate Tom’s story and take Tom’s side, both condescends to its protagonist and never really gives a sense of motivation. Rascally, sure, mischievous, but why? We see hints of Tom’s conscience from time to time, but the grief he puts his elders through seems nothing short of sociopathic at times.

Intriguingly, this story reads like a play. Give this some thought as you read the book. Scenes are clear-cut, action relatively confined in space, and entrances and exits highlighted (over fences, into caves, etc.).

What is appealing to me is the treatment of absolutely non-children’s issues in the novel. Widow Douglas is absolutely threatened with rape. Murder happens. Racism. The children themselves act much more grown up than the preadolescents I know today–able to cook for themselves, boat, sleep in the open, drink and smoke–enough that I spent a lot of the time wondering just how old Tom was supposed to be. At times he seemed seven, at times fifteen.

This early wending into adulthood reminds that this bucolic drama is not entirely innocent: it deals with heavy topics; it takes place in a wilder time. It’s an important document of Americana, just don’t ask me to enjoy it too much.


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