Mark Twain Forum Reviews: The Ballad of Huck & Miguel by Tim DeRoche

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

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.

…continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn by Peter G. Beidler

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn. By Peter G. Beidler. University of Missouri Press, 2018. Pp. 179. Hardcover $40.00. ISBN 978-0-8262-2138-4.

“It’s lovely to live on a raft” says Huck just a few paragraphs into chapter 19 of Mark Twain’s masterpiece. But what kind of raft is it lovely to live on, and does it even matter what kind of raft Huck lived on? Of course, everyone who has read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn knows that the raft that transported Huck and Jim into literary immortality was a tiny affair consisting of a few short logs tied together with barely enough room to hold the two of them. Proof of this can be found on the covers of many modern paperback editions of the book. But looking at more covers it becomes obvious that their tiny raft was made of logs with a plank deck on top, and a wigwam. Of course, anyone who has studied the one dozen illustrations in the first edition of the book (found in chapters 12, 15, 16, 20, 21, 24, 29, and 40) knows that their raft was in fact made of planks and had a wigwam and a long steering oar, but nowhere in the book does an illustration depict the entire raft, so even a careful study of E. W. Kemble’s drawings does not tell the whole story. Finally, anyone who has read the text carefully, knows that Huck gives a fuller description of their raft, declaring that it measured twelve feet by fifteen or sixteen feet, and that it was made of pine planks that had broken off of a much larger lumber raft, and that it sat a good six or seven inches out of the water, and had one long oar. They also know that Jim had to fashion a second steering oar to control their not-so-tiny raft, make a raised platform of dirt upon which to build a fire, and build a wigwam large enough to accommodate that fire. They also know that the raft later had room for the Duke and the King. These astute readers think they know more than those readers who misplaced their trust in those modern paperback covers, but even astute readers don’t know the half of it.

In Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn, Peter Beidler knows the other half of it and a good deal more, and attacks a topic most Twainians might think could be vanquished in one short journal article. Beidler comes at this topic from every flank, armed to the teeth with meticulous research and 60 informative illustrations, and wins the battle in less than 200 pages. Beidler leaves no plank unturned, so to speak, and investigates things like whether the pine planks were seasoned or green (fresh) and how much they weighed per cubic foot, how and where lumber rafts were constructed (Wisconsin) and how they were steered (with sweeps), what Twain knew or did not know about lumber rafts and other rivercraft, and a myriad of other historical facts wisely separated from river lore, and convincingly concludes that Huck and Jim’s raft was a “crib”–a twelve by sixteen foot section of a lumber raft (which usually consisted of six such cribs held together by “yokes” dropped on top of “grub stakes”)–made entirely of fresh pine planks. Early on (page 35), he calculates that if six or seven inches of those planks were above the waterline, then another eighteen inches of planks were below the waterline giving the raft its buoyancy, and that this 12x16x2 foot raft was made of 384 cubic feet of green pine that weighed thirty-six pounds per cubic foot, bringing the weight of their raft to 13,824 pounds–nearly seven tons!–not counting the pad of dirt for the building of fires, the wigwam, Huck, Jim, various supplies, and two rapscallion guests for a portion of the journey.

Just about now, even the most astute reader must be rethinking everything they thought they knew about that flimsy little raft and its precious human cargo. And what the heck is a grub stake and how do you yoke one–or two–or, damn it, how many grub stakes do you have to yoke anyhow? And what exactly does a yoke look like? And what made their raft a crib? And how does Beidler know that lumber rafts were made of green wood? And, while we’re at it, just what the heck is a lumber raft, and what “pints” does Beidler see about a lumber raft that make it any better’n any other raft? And now that readers know the dimensions and origins of the raft, why should they care to know more? The astute reader might even begin to wonder why it is significant that Huck uses a canoe, the slave traders a skiff, and the Duke and the King arrive in style on a yawl posing as the English brothers of Peter Wilks.

The good news is that Beidler provides clear explanations augmented by contemporary drawings and photographs as well as modern diagrams that answer these questions. By the end of this book, every reader will know if there is any difference between a flat, a flatboat, a woodboat, a wood-flat, or a broadhorn (spoiler alert: nope). The reader will also know what a sweep is, and what to do with one (well, you don’t sweep with it), and how to use it with a headblock (no football or wrestling is involved either). The reader will know the difference between a rapids-piece, a skiff, a yawl, a scow, and a string. He’ll know a Mississippi raft from a Wisconsin raft, and how you make one out of several of the others. He’ll be able to distinguish a drift canoe from driftwood, and a witch from a thwart. He’ll know how to reconfigure a lumber raft to run a rapids, and what can go wrong, and how such a mishap yielded the raft that is central to Huck and Jim’s story. Huck and Jim knew these things, so it behooves the reader to know them too. As Beidler says “We might wish that Huck had explained some of his nautical terms more fully, but we can scarcely fault Twain for not anticipating that readers a century and more after he wrote his book would not be aware of the meanings of some of his terms. Surely it is our job as readers and as researchers to figure out what Huck means when he talks . . . . [T]o assume that we can always accurately guess from the context what Huck means . . . is to miss the boat” (117-118).

…continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum.

You may also be interested in Peter Beidler’s discussion of Huck and Jim’s raft from earlier this month!

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: The Introspective Art of Mark Twain by Douglas Anderson

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

The Introspective Art of Mark Twain. Douglas Anderson. Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 278. Hardcover. $120.00. ISBN 978-1-5013-2955-5. Paperback. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-5013-2954-8. E-book. $25.99. ISBN 978-1-5013-2957-9.

There is nothing better than a preface that explicitly spells out what the author hopes to accomplish, and Douglas Anderson wastes no time doing this. In his very first sentence he declares “This book begins an examination of Mark Twain’s artistic preoccupations by assuming that he was . . . an unusually perceptive student of his own mind and career, and that he undertook a review of that career . . . near the end of his life” (ix). A page later Anderson is more specific: “The following pages undertake to explore that legacy by tracing its inward excursions . . . . The journey will begin by considering . . . the enigmatic dialogue What is Man?” (x). Anderson promptly brings his preface to a close on the very next page with a final observation: “To begin a book such as this one with What Is Man? risks discouraging many admirers of Twain’s comic art and caustic political satire. But the risk is worth taking if it succeeds in alerting Twain’s readers to a rich and neglected dimension of his achievement” (xi). Even when faced with the risk of discouragement, what’s a reviewer to do when the author of a book practically writes the review for him?

Mark Twain’s readers are all aware of the outer dressing and décor of his fiction, and Twain’s mastery of the literary arts leaves most of them with few doubts about the truths of those “inward excursions” that flow just below those fictional surfaces. Anderson is not the first to explore this realm in Twain’s writings, and he is not the first to apply a close reading of What Is Man? to Twain’s other writings, but he is the first to plumb those depths at length, using What Is Man? as the prism through which three decades of Twain’s most important works can be understood.

Mark Twain himself claimed that the gestation for What Is Man?, first published in 1906, had been underway for “twenty-five or twenty-seven years” (1). Anderson accepts this claim that the composition of that work had begun decades earlier and had extended through the years of Twain’s most productive literary output. His introduction charts the structure and philosophy he discerns from his own close reading of What Is Man?, followed by four chapters in which he explains how this work functions as a master-key that unlocks the deeper meanings lurking under the surface of Twain’s earlier writings. He then uses that key to unlock Mark Twain’s other writings, revealing the “introspective art” that gives this book its title.

Early in his introductory chapter, Anderson notes that What is Man? could just as easily be titled What is Consciousness? and treats Twain’s Socratic dialogue in between the Old Man and the Young Man as a series of thought experiments proposed by the Old Man to the Young Man. He discusses at length the familiar issues of nature versus nurture, and the mechanistic philosophy that views the human mind as a kind of machine. These ideas were first explored by Paul Carus in The Mechanistic Principle and the Non-Mechanical (1913) in which more than forty pages are devoted to What Is Man? including extensive quotes from Twain’s work, but Anderson does not cite Carus. However, Anderson’s explication of What Is Man? is excellent and full of fresh insights. He concludes by announcing that the following chapters will “work backward from the end of Twain’s career to its beginning, when he first formulated and explored the account of mental life to which the Old Man gives sustained expression” (14).

 Continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

Copyright © 2017 Mark Twain Forum

This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.