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.