Book Review: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain (Canterbury Classics, 2012)

Huckleberry Finn is our hero and our narrator in this adventure novel that is really so much more than an adventure novel. Huck lives in Missouri, some time in the mid-19th century. The story begins after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and we find Tom living with the well-meaning widow who took him in after his previous adventures. Huck is not unappreciative but he chafes at the constrictions that his new life has created him. He has to wear uncomfortable clothes, stay clean, and get learning. He can’t resist sneaking out with his buddy Tom and when his dissolute father reappears, Huck slips fairly easily back into his previous life. This is, of course, in a time when there were few resources for a child like Huck. His father is abusive, often drunk, frequently disappearing for days at a time. Huck enjoys that living with his father means he doesn’t have to worry about being fancy but his father doesn’t treat him well and forces Huck to give him control over the money that rightfully belongs to Huck.

It doesn’t take long before Huck devises an escape plan, which involves faking his own death, and he takes off down river. He is soon joined by Jim, a runaway slave who had belonged to a woman Huck knew and disliked. Huck and Jim take off on a raft (more like a large sort of boat than the haphazard raft I had always imagined) down river, searching for their individual freedoms. A young boy and a runaway slave are vulnerable to all kinds of dangers and Huck and Jim meet a varied assortment of characters.

I’d never Huckleberry Finn before and had a vague impression of it as a fun adventure story and so was surprised to find how much more there is here. There are adventures here but it’s funny and sweet and, really, a story about morality and conscience. I picked it up when I did as the next book to read in my Virtuous Reading Challenge. Huckleberry Finn was the book Karen Swallow Prior chose to represent the virtue of Courage and it isn’t hard to see how fitting that is.

Courage is getting your heart in the right place at the right time despite the obstacles.

Karen Swallow Prior, “On Reading Well”

Huck is an uneducated, neglected young boy. There are well-meaning people around him but he has lacked both education and care for most of his life. He’s growing up in the United States in a time when slavery is both normal and all around him. As Huck and Jim travel together and Jim gets closer to his goal of freedom, Huck becomes more and more internally conflicted. Huck believes that he is doing wrong by helping Jim get to freedom. Everything he has been taught tells him that Jim belongs to a woman in Missouri and Huck is wronging her by stealing her “property”. Yet Jim is unfailingly kind to Huck; he cares for Huck and truly loves him in a way that no one ever has. Despite what the world around him has taught him, Huck feels deeply that he cannot betray Jim. It is an incredibly stirring moment when Huck decides that if helping Jim means that he goes to hell, well, then he’ll help free Jim and he’ll go to hell. Huck’s courage isn’t in his boldness in running away or the tricks he plays on others to get by. It’s in the incredible inner fortitude he shows by choosing to do right even when it goes against everything society around him has taught him. This makes Huck such a fantastic and complex character to read about and watch develop.

The other thing I knew about Huckleberry Finn before I began reading it was its prolific use of the n-word. I had expected it to be something closer to To Kill a Mockingbird but the word is used a lot and the depictions of slaves are sometimes difficult to read. It’s honest and accurate to the time but it does make it hard to read and was incredibly jarring throughout. In the end, I think what Huckleberry Finn has to say about doing right in the face of social wrongs is a powerful and important message that we can still learn a lot from today but be warned that it isn’t always an easy read.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain”

  1. I read an abridged version of this as a child, but haven’t read it since. It’s on my list, after I re-read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I most remember the story as an adventure after Huck ran away. I don’t remember if the n-word was used in my copy or not but imagine it would have been. It wasn’t a word that was used in Australia but to our shame, we had plenty of terrible words of our own that were used on anyone who wasn’t of British or white European descent.

    1. It’s used a lot. It’s almost exclusively the way Huck describes any Black character. Which I suppose is accurate to the time but it’s such a jarring word to read over and over again. I can see why this would be difficult to read in schools today even though it has such a great message.

    2. I thought it would be more a matter of skipping over a word or two but it’s much more prevalent than I realized. I think it could be done well with older students but I also understand why teachers just wouldn’t want to touch it.

  2. I know Twain is one of those authors whose books get edited to remove racial slurs. You review reminded me just how much slurs are used, but also to what extent Huck is more open minded. Can’t you easily picture him dropping the slur and just calling Jim “Jim”? I wouldn’t be against a shift in the novel where perhaps Huck does use slurs and then there is a turning point where he does not. Would if censor the book? I don’t think so. Censorship, to me, is more about silencing or skirting the truth.

    1. I can see why this book is tricky to have in schools. You could never read it out loud to a class (I’m glad I didn’t try and read it to my kids!) I can definitely see Huck dropping the word from his speech. He does call Jim “Jim” when they speak to each other and when he’s talking specifically about Jim. You can see the respect and affection they have for one another. It’s pretty clear that, for Huck, he knows no other word to describe this class of people around him. But if he lived in a society where there wasn’t that division then he wouldn’t use or need to use that word. The word’s usage and the other ways characters talk about the slaves around them does a good, fairly subtle job of showing just why Jim is so desperate for freedom. Even Huck doesn’t entirely see him as a human being for a long time. I think you could take out the n word without censoring the story but you’d have to leave in some other offensive stuff in order to truly show the prevailing attitudes of the time and how entrenched they were.

  3. I’ve never read this and all I really knew about it was the prolific use of the n-word, which isn’t a particularly appealing advert! However, your review and the discussion in the comments has made me curious about it. Huck sounds like a fantastic character and I like the way you talk about what makes him courageous. You are getting some great reads out of this Virtuous Reading Challenge!

    1. I was really moved by the book and I didn’t expect to be. The use of the n-word is…a lot and it’s hard to read at times but It is unfortunately what was normal at the time and can even show how Huck’s personal views are so far from what he’s always known.

  4. It’s so fascinating to read your modern-day review of this book, as I haven’t read many thoughts on it that have been written now. I know it’s on a few banned book lists, most likely because of the ‘n’ word, so I never really knew what its depictions of slavery were actually like until reading your thoughts on it. I haven’t read the Adventures of Tom Sawyer either…

    1. I expected a To Kill a Mockingbird type thing, where the word is there but could be easily cut out. But it’s used a LOT; it’s almost the only term that’s used to refer to characters of colour (and the alternates are also offensive things like referring to a grown man as “boy”). So I can see why it makes it on so many banned book lists. I read Tom Sawyer when I was a kid but I am kind of interested in going back and seeing if there are messages I missed in my reading then. Tom shows up as a character here and I found him kind of annoying though.

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