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The Ballad of Huck & Miguel. By Tim DeRoche. Illustrated by Daniel Gonzalez. Redtail Press, 2018. Pp. 270. Hardcover. $26.95. ISBN 978-0-9992776-7-6.
Hardly a season passes without another Twain’t springing up from the fertile soil tilled so long ago by Mark Twain. His influence seems everlasting, and his writings, biography, and cultural iconography continue to inspire bountiful crops of works based upon his writings–borrowing characters, titles, or plots–or stories featuring Twain himself as a character. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn alone has inspired attempts to write sequels (beginning with Twain’s own efforts), modern day adaptations, pastiches, stage and musical and movie versions, and even comic books, graphic novels, and one robotic version. These Twain’ts (they ain’t Twain; hence they are Twain’ts) have sometimes taken successful innovative directions, like Jon Clinch’s masterful Finn (2007), that provided a startling dark counterpoint to the original novel, illuminating the character of Pap Finn and shedding light on Huck’s maternity, or Tim Champlin’s recent time-traveling romps for young readers that insert modern characters into reimagined adventures of Huck, Tom, and Becky. Some Twain’ts succeed and some fail, and the vast majority fall somewhere in between, so the arrival of a successful Twain’t is cause for notice.
The partnership of Tim DeRoche (text) and Daniel Gonzales (illustrations) is just such a success. In their deckle-edged, sturdily bound, beautifully designed ballad, their Huck is what Twain’s Huck was–an abused child looking for a safe haven, who struggles and eventually finds humanity and freedom. Like Twain’s Huck, he finds these things through a series of episodic adventures while escaping a hostile world in the company of another outcast of society–an undocumented immigrant named Miguel. Their adventures take place on the Los Angeles River, a concrete-lined urban version of Twain’s Mississippi River that is just as treacherous as Twain’s wild untamed land and waterscape. No attempt is made to imitate Twain’s original work chapter by chapter, or character by character, or even theme by theme, or trope by trope–after all, it takes place more than 150 years after Twain’s adventure in a sky-scrapery West Coast environment, but the reader will certainly notice that the more things change the more they stay the same.
The story is told by Huck, whose language and childish innocence are a modern reflection of Twain’s Huck. Just as in Twain’s original, the characters don’t all talk alike, nor do they try. Huck uses perfectly descriptive words like rubbleshackle, flabbergassed, seriosity, immediously, meamble, adjusticated, proxicality, satisfactual, and earsplicing, and Miguel, who is this modern-day Huck’s paternal mentor in much the same way Jim mentored and protected Twain’s Huck, often speaks Spanish. Huck’s Pap, as would be expected, speaks like a vulgarian, and other characters speak in still other ways, befitting their roles.
Besides the language and viewpoint, the story itself is structured like Twain’s original, and is not merely episodic, but cinematic, a reminder that Twain’s original novel is a modern novel in every way–not because it is ironic and part of the shift toward realism in its day, but in language, viewpoint, and structure. Likewise, just as E. W. Kemble’s sketchy rough-hewn illustrations are integral to Twain’s original, the forty-five sharp linoleum block prints (linocuts) by Daniel Gonzales are integral to DeRoche’s tale. Skyscrapers loom overhead or in the background dwarfing Huck and Miguel, light and dark are in constant contrast and remind the reader that dangers lurk in the shadows, and the characters they meet seem to lunge from the page at the reader exactly as they lunge at Huck and Miguel.
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