Featured in Inside Time in January 2019
The report this month comes from HMP Wymott where the PRG group discussed Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain’s classic novel of boyhood first published in 1876. The book is set along the Mississippi River in the pre-Civil War American South and is about the adventures of Tom and his friend Huckleberry Finn.
Opinion was mixed: some found it a bit slow and the Southern dialect hard to get to grips with. But one member reported that for him the language added to the charm and he enjoyed the book so much he plans to carry on with Twain and read his later Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Another reckoned that recent reading of To Kill a Mockingbird had ‘tuned him in’ to the language and helped him enjoy it more. And some had found themselves ‘laughing out loud’. A very interesting observation that the slow pace of the book suggested the lazy flow of the Mississippi and created just the right mood for the reader.
But the group was uneasy about the book’s casual racism and the problem of excusing it as ‘being of its time’. Jim is a slave presented as gullible and foolish and ‘Injun Joe’ is a ‘murderin’ half-breed’. This led to more general discussion of black characters in Southern literature, from Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird to one chap’s memory of the rotund and mostly invisible housekeeper in Tom and Jerry cartoons.
A lot of comments about the ability of Tom and Huck to roam without adult restrictions, and the contrast to children’s lives today. The mystery of Tom’s past also came under the spotlight: his age is hard to guess and all we really know about him is that his mum has died and he’s being raised by his aunt Polly. Is the novel just a rose-coloured story of childhood freedom or is there a sense of loss there too?
In the course of the meeting conversation branched out to explore Twain’s reputation as a witty humourist:
It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt
If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed
A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read
An arresting image of the author produced an irreverent suggestion that Twain would surely have enjoyed: