The original American smart-ass tells a smart-ass tale about a smart-ass kid living in Antebellum Missouri. Huck Finn is the less glamorous and less educated partner-in-crime to Twain’s more famous Tom Sawyer. And Twain seems to be having more fun telling Huck’s tale.
Huck’s had a rough life. His Pap is the town drunk, abusive and, even by the Southern standards before the Civil War, bigoted. Pap isn’t happy that Huck is learning to read and write. He thinks the boy’s trying to be better than his station in life. (ie – Making daddy look bad.) He also wants to get his hands on some of that money that Huck and Tom came into during the events of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. So Pap spirits him away to nearby Illinois. What’s a poor boy to do with a drunken, ignorant father locking him away in a cabin in the woods?
Huck fakes his own murder and flees to a nearby island where he runs into Jim, a local slave who decided to run away in all the chaos surrounding Huck’s “murder.” Together, they set off north on the Mississippi to free Jim. When they miss Cairo, Illinois by several miles, then are separated by a steamboat, they head south for New Orleans to see what they can find there.
Along the way, they run into two con artists who claim to by the deposed King of France (and never mind that he can’t speak French) and a British duke (ditto with the English accent.) Even poor, ignorant Jim realizes these are not royalty, but he and Huck don’t get away fast enough. The phony royals, running low on cash and foiled by Huck in their attempt to steal an inheritance in Tennessee, sell Jim.
Huck finds him on a nearby farm, where the family there mistakes him for their cousin.
That cousin would be Tom Sawyer. Naturally, Tom shows up, plays along. Hilarity ensues as they try to free Jim again. The punchline – there are several at the end of the story – is that Jim was already freed when his guilt-ridden owner decided not to sell him but free him when she died.
The book was written in the latter half of the 19th century, when slavery and all its implications were still fresh on everyone’s mind. Although Huck is raised on the racist dogma of the Antebellum South, he clearly doesn’t like slavery or seeing his friend Jim in bondage. He’s been taught that there’s nothing worse than an abolitionist and that freeing slaves is theft. However, he also seems to have a hard time working up any guilt over the subject, his conscience stubbornly telling him Jim needs to be freed.
It’s the tone and language used that puts The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the banned books list quite often. And for good reason. The N word appears so many times one might think they were reading a novelization of The Wire. I’m not a fan of banning books. I’ll go as far as to say book banning is criminal. But since people do try, I hope they keep trying to ban this book. And I hope they keep losing. Why? It fulfills what Twain set out to do with this book, which is to make a mockery of the old prejudices. As long as we keep talking about how we don’t like the way blacks are treated in the book, we get to the heart of why Huck couldn’t feel any guilt over freeing Jim. Huck was better than his upbringing.
Which Jim picked up on before Huck did.