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I had started this book a few times but never got interested in it and put it down. This time I started by listening to an audio version and finished it by going back and forth between audio and print.
I enjoyed the book very much. It was originally an adventure story for young adults and now it is a classic of American historical fiction showing warts and all what this country was like.
Reading the book helped me to appreciate how important the Mississippi River was in shaping the lives of millions of Americans since that area was settled. The river is a focal point for the action in the book and the lives of the characters in the book are intertwined together around the river. For me one of the most pleasant scenes in the book was Huck and Jim on the raft floating down the river at night looking up at the stars.
The characters in the book are a cross sample of the people who lived beside and traveled on the river in that time period. Miss Watson, Aunt Polly and the Judge are examples of upright solid citizens and on the other end of the spectrum are Huck's Pap and the King and the Duke. Huckleberry Finn was my favorite character. Huck seemed pretty smart, a good friend, mostly honest and always trying to do the right thing if he could. The more I read about him the more complex and likable I found him.
I don't think that Tom Sawyer holds a candle to Huck. Tom is well meaning but he gets real silly at times and everything in his world seems all about him and his crazy ideas.
The author does an excellent job of making the reader a participant in Huck's adventures. The writing is clear and concise and the varied dialects add spice to the story. The main story is about Huck and Jim running away from Huck's Pap and Miss Watson. As this is proceeding there are various sidetracks that keep the story moving well. I was never sure how things would work out until the end but I always had a feeling from the author's tone in telling the story that all of the dangers would be overcome. The last adventure which is a Tom Sawyer special is a real hoot that gets funnier the more I think about it.
Jim was portrayed as a good person but his character, the fact that he was a slave and always referred to as a nigger brought out the ugliness of racism in America. Jim was very childlike in his speech and his thoughts. An important aspect of American racism was that African-Americans didn't have the abilities of whites and needed to be taken care of. I grew up in an era when the word nigger was still used and I had to teach myself not to use it. Even when I hear it used by black people it is a derogatory term with offensive connotations. The worst part is that I cannot say that the author goes out of his way to be offensive or that his portrayal is not accurate. That is the way things were and I sometimes wonder if all the death and destruction of the Civil War wasn't the price that was paid for the shame of it all.
All seriousness aside I thought this was a really good book and one I would consider to have the necessary attributes of a classic. There was adventure, joy, suspense and a happy ending. I look forward to reading some more of Mr. Twain's novels and reading this book again.
My overall rating for the LoA volume, 3½***, is rather low for an LoA. This is motivated by the preferable use of Norton Critical Editions, in which all but Life on the Mississippi are available. And note that the NCE of Puddn'head Wilson also includes its predecessor inspiration Those Extraordinary Twins.
Tom Sawyer and, most importantly, Huckleberry Finn are of course 5***** American classics. Life on the Mississippi, however, loses its charm once Twain's youthful river pilotage has ended and the book has turned into a rather mundane travelogue. Puddn'head Wilson I have mixed feelings about (on a first reading it seems really questionable racially), but it's certainly not up to the level of Twain's historical "romances" – The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee, and Joan of Arc, though it is superior to such a triviality as Tom Sawyer, Detective.
Yes, yes, I know, Puddn'head Wilson is racial satire, but somehow I feel edgy about it. The two look-alike master/slave infants are just a little too patronizing for my taste and certainly not up to the level of HF's Jim.