Fall ‘Trouble Begins’ Lecture Explores Huck Finn

The fall portion of the 2019-2020 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues on Wednesday, October 16 in Peterson Chapel, Cowles Hall at Elmira College.  The lecture, which begins at 7:00 p.m. lecture is free and open to the public.

The lecture, “‘He ain’t a-comin’ back no mo’: Huck Finn as an American Myth,” will be presented by Tim DeRoche, producer and author. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a rousing adventure, a realistic depiction of American boyhood, a satirical critique of American society, and a foundational text for all of modern American literature. But part of what makes the story so transcendent and enduring is that Huck Finn is also a myth. In this story of two fugitives fleeing down a river, Mark Twain taps into universal themes and tropes that recur in fairy tales, folklore, and religious narratives. That’s one reason that American writers and filmmakers have been retelling this story – both overtly and covertly – for the last 100 years. Seeing Huck Finn through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s universal “hero’s journey” helps reveal why the book has been so important in the formation of the American psyche but also why the ending can feel so unsatisfying. As the prototype for a particular American myth, Huck Finn will be retold over and over as long as our society persists – perhaps even longer.

DeRoche is the author of The Ballad of Huck & Miguel, a modern-day retelling of Huck Finn set on the Los Angeles River. Featured on CBS Sunday Morning in May of 2019, the book has been called “satirical, funny, thrilling, hopeful, and human” by the Mark Twain Forum. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Tim DeRoche emigrated to California to attend Pomona College, where he studied English literature. A graduate of the PBS Producers Academy at WGBH in Boston, he also holds a certificate in feature-film screenwriting from UCLA. He served as executive producer and writer of the children’s science series Grandpa’s Garage, produced by Turner Learning for Georgia Public Television. Tim has written for the Washington PostEducation WeekSchool Administrator, and the Los Angeles Business Journal. His new nonfiction book Separated By Law will be published in 2020 and takes a close look at the policies and laws that assign American children to schools based on where they live.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series – In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series.  The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public. 

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.

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