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June 19, 2015

Malcolm Brooks: Today’s Tom Sawyer

Posted by emily

Malcolm Brooks first read THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER when he was not yet 11 years old, and the impact of the Twain classic was not lost on him. He and his friends --- boys of the rural foothills of the California Sierras --- did their best to invent adventures worthy of Tom and Huck. So when his young son asked for his copy of TOM SAWYER, Malcolm was not surprised by his interest; he was impressed, though, by his boy’s keen insight. Malcolm’s own book, PAINTED HORSES --- a stunning debut, as well as a lyrical and layered adventure story worthy of Twain’s heroes --- is now available in paperback.

My 11-year-old son Ethan read at a fairly advanced level from early on, the same way I did as a kid. So when I picked him up from school a few months back and he asked if I had a copy of TOM SAWYER, I wasn’t especially surprised. Not, at least, until he told me what he was actually angling for.

“We’re reading it in class, but it’s not the original,” Ethan said. “It’s the kid’s version. I want the real thing.” He seemed downright insulted.

As it happened, I’d re-read the novel myself not long before, out of a ‘70s-vintage Mark Twain anthology with a disintegrating spine that went completely kaput by the time I finished. We headed straight for Barnes and Noble for a replacement.

Unlike my boy, I didn’t grow up in a reading environment, particularly. I did grow up in a fairly rural environment, with farmland all around and a dense stretch of hardwoods in a creek bottom adjacent to our house. A hand-me-down box of Hardy Boys books first fired my imagination, but THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, read when I was probably slightly younger than Ethan, took things to a whole new level --- the first really nuanced piece of literature I’d encountered, with history, hijinks and suspense all wrapped into one.

My brothers and friends and I ran roughshod down in the creek bottom all the time anyway, and I vividly remember smuggling a matchbook down after absorbing the pirates-on-the-island sequence, building a lean-to shelter and a real live campfire and trying to conjure an actual adventure worthy of what Tom and Huck might have gotten themselves into. I was reading it straight, as a boy’s adventure. Adults, of course, eventually read it as a sort of wistful “Paradise Lost,” and the fact it works so well on both levels has a lot to do with the beauty and longevity of the thing. But I wanted Ethan to experience it the way I had.

Which is to say, unfiltered. Some of the omissions and alterations were no doubt made with the best of intentions, in an effort to conform to modern standards of language and civility and equality --- Injun Joe becomes Outlaw Joe, for example, and the slave Jim is absent from the assigned text altogether. A couple of sub-plots were cut, probably partially in the interests of plain brevity, while at least one --- the island pirates sequence, in fact --- more likely went away because nobody in his right mind wants an actual fifth-grader plotting anything remotely similar. But I think we need to give kids a little more credit. In this age of smartphones and streaming information, they can quickly smell a rat.

“How did you know it wasn’t the real deal?” I asked him.

He told me he knew the original had “the n-word” all through it, and the classroom version did not. “It’s just a known fact,” he said.

I’ll admit I’m no micro-manager. I grew up with strictly limited access to popular culture, and when the pendulum swung, it swung hard. Ethan has heard some pretty shocking hip hop in his day, and he’s seen Pulp Fiction. He’s read Stephen King. And now he glued himself to a brand-new copy of Mark Twain’s uncensored masterpiece.

Like civilization itself, parenting often seems like a protracted experiment. I can understand the motive for wanting to shelter kids from the ugliness of the world, even from the ugliness of history. But again, I think we need to give them a little more credit. Ethan finished within a week, and declared it his new favorite book. Eventually he’ll probably read it again as an adult, the way I did, and see it in a whole new light.

The other day, it occurred to me to ask what exactly bothered him about that sanitized version he’d first encountered.

Without missing a beat, he said, “If I wrote a book, I wouldn’t want somebody changing it into something it really wasn’t.”

I have to give him credit.