I have read Twain before, altho not this one. I know I read the book before this as a kid. I remember repeatedly getting stuck partway through _Roughing It_. I _think_ I read _The Prince and the Pauper_. And some other stuff. But all that was before I was done with college, so a while ago now. This was a book club selection, and I wasn't particularly enthused about it; I expected it to be a grim read.
And indeed: grim doesn't even begin to cover it. Twain's authorial voice may romp along like this is an adventure, but it's only an adventure in the sense of someone else having a helluva time a long way off. Dialogue, Huck's thoughts, and the consequences of actions in the story collectively operate as Twain's blunt instrument in attacking racism, slavery, the South in general, religion in particular, gullible idiots and those who prey upon them, anyone with a scheme to make money, monarchies, aristocrats, and people who do stupid and dangerous things for no damn good reason. Women receive somewhat lighter treatment in the hands of Twain, even when they are incredibly idiotic.
The tale, such as it is (I hesitate to call it a plot, given the front matter): Huck's dad has shown up and tried to steal his money, which Huck has cleverly handed off to the Judge in consideration for a dollar. While the Widow, the Judge and others make an effort to protect him from his father, Pap wins and takes Huck out of school, out of town and locks him up in a stoutly built log cabin with a lock on it where he keeps a sharp eye out to make sure Huck doesn't leave. His abuse of Huck, particularly while drunk, reaches the point that Huck, expecting his father will murder him, concludes there is only one solution: fake his murder and run away by raft down the river.
The same day that Huck departs, Jim overhears his mistress saying she's going to sell him down the river for $800, putting him far from his wife and children. Jim may be easygoing, but he's too smart to let that happen to him; he runs, too. The two meet up on an island and have a good life for a few days before Huck's sortie for information turns up an effective search party and they run further down the river.
The episodic story has its ups and downs. They get some money out of a house and find a corpse, which Jim does not tell Huck is Huck's Pap. This is a spoiler in the published version; in the original, you knew at this point in the plot -- specifically, you knew that Jim did not tell Huck he could safely go home, because Jim needed Huck to be out and about during daylight hours. Things don't go quite as well at the wrecked steamboat and the fog that prevents them from making their turn at Cairo is a disaster from which they do not recover. The two men they casually help out turn out to be the worst of criminals and almost impossible to ditch. Fortunately, one of them ultimately sells Jim to the Phelps, who turn out to be relatives of Tom's, and after a truly loopy bit of nonsense, we learn that Jim was freed when his mistress died. Jim then tells Huck his pap is dead and Huck gets to go back to school. Whee.
It's easy to see, reading this as an adult, that shit _yeah_ the Soviets liked this guy! And it is truly a miracle of propaganda that has made it so people can read this entire novel and not feel bludgeoned by the attacks Mark Twain is Most Unsubtly Making on see list above.
Periodically, there's a push to ban this book from libraries, schools, curricula, etc., generally revolving around the non-stop use of the n-word. I think, at this point in history, we probably should remove it from the curricula and here's why.
Apparently everyone teaching it, reading it, etc. has completely lost track of the fact that the n-word was a pejorative word when this book was originally published and the reader is _supposed_ to be offended by its use, is _supposed_ to think the people in this book are barbaric and awful, and, further, is _supposed_ to realize that if this is what it means to be decent, god-fearing, etc., then Hell is Clearly the Better Destination. I mean, Twain says so, via his narrator, over and over and over and over again.
I think it's probably a good, even a great book. It is a book that is _about_ racism -- in detail. (Was anyone hurt? No. An n- was killed.) But while I read it and can see exactly what Twain is saying, very intelligent people can come to entirely opposite conclusions. I suspect this bothered Twain while he was alive, given that by the end of his life, he had completely given up on subtlety (what little there is here). Altho not on humor.
One last remark. During the discussion tonight, a couple people were trying to explain to me how Huck in this book was so much more innocent than kids are today (so Huck, at 14, would be comparable to a 10 year old today). I could make no sense of this (other than that the book does not contain any overt sexuality, but that says more about publishing mores at the time than anything else), but one point rallied was that Huck, for example, wouldn't know what kidnapping was. After I finished reading the wikipedia articles on Huck Finn, Mark Twain, etc., I realized the thing which had been nagging at me. Huck Finn might or might not know the word "kidnapped". The crew certainly did not know what "ransom" meant. But Huck Finn was kidnapped.
I still don't get where the innocent thing comes in. Perhaps it's that kids are more thoroughly controlled today? That would certainly explain the question this morning about why I was riding my bike in the rain. I don't think Huck Finn would ever have felt the need to ask me that question.