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The following review appeared 24 June 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Mark Twain did not create many strong female characters, and his most famous female creation is arguably Becky Thatcher, Tom's demure sweetheart in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Although Becky is certainly not a strong character, she and Tom are coequal literary icons in the popular eye. What accounts for her exulted status? Is it anything she does in Tom Sawyer? Or, does it have more to do with efforts to raise her reputation to help interest girls in Mark Twain's books?
Becky appears frequently in Tom Sawyer but has little to do beyond frustrating Tom with her fickleness and giving him a heroine to rescue. The only notable initiative she takes occurs halfway through the novel when she flirts with Alfred Temple, but even that she does merely to make Tom jealous. Moreover, the bitter estrangement that incident creates sets up a later scene at school in which Tom's sudden volunteering to take a whipping that Becky expects to get herself seems doubly heroic. From that moment, Becky stops being fickle and also gives up any semblance of being an independent character, even though her most memorable scene occurs later, when she and Tom get lost in the cave. Even then, however, she has little to do but sobbingly resign herself to death and allow Tom to save her.
When novelist Lenore Hart read Tom Sawyer in the fifth grade, she found Becky more "weepy and romantic and silly" than real girls. Many years later, after visiting Hannibal, she decided to give Becky a larger role in a story of her own. The result is Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher. In this full-length novel, a seventy-two-year-old Becky, living in San Francisco in 1910, relates the story of her life.
Pastiches using Mark Twain's characters are mostly attempts at sequels to his original stories. For example, Clement Wood's Tom Sawyer Grows Up (1939) is a children's novel that continues Tom's romance with Becky and pits Tom and Huck Finn against bank robbers. Wood followed it with More Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1940), which takes Tom and Huck into Indian territory. A more ambitious attempt at a similar sequel was Australian writer Greg Matthews's The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1983), in which Huck and Jim go west to the California gold fields. More recent years have seen two separate attempts to complete Mark Twain's unfinished "Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians," in which Huck, Jim, and Tom all go west together. Yet another novel, Dan Walker's Huckleberry Finn in Love and War: The Lost Journals (2007) carries Mark Twain's characters into the Civil War and has some interesting parallels with Hart's novel.
Jon Clinch made a much different kind of use of Mark Twain's characters in Finn (2007), a novel about Huck's vicious father that is sufficiently original to stand well on its own. Definitely not a sequel to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Finn provides Huck's backstory, and much of its narrative overlaps that of Mark Twain's book. Finn fleshes out minor incidents in Huckleberry Finn and fills in gaps in Pap Finn's story. Its brilliance lies in its transformation of Pap into a complex and full-blooded character and in raising intriguing questions about Huck without significantly altering anything in Huckleberry Finn. Readers might reasonably object that Finn says things about Huck and Pap that Mark Twain never intended, but they would have trouble finding anything in Huckleberry Finn that actually contradicts Finn.
The same cannot be said of Becky. This novel not only offers wholesale revisions of Tom Sawyer but also intrudes significantly into the life of its author, Sam Clemens, and even negates the premise on which Huckleberry Finn is based. Hart's eponymous narrator sets out her objectives in her untitled prologue, composed shortly after she learns of Mark Twain's death in 1910. To her, "Sammy Clemens" will always be "the redheaded child who never got a story straight; the one who always had to improve on the truth." She complains that although what Clemens wrote about the people of her childhood has "the ring of truth, it's what he left out that's important." The main thing he left out, it seems, was the truth about her: "I was never that pale, limp, blond-curled girl-child from a sentimental chromo. I was tough as any boy, and kept my own secrets" (p. 4). This sounds a bit like a modern feminist perspective; however, Becky's greatest ambition was merely to be one of the boys, not to improve the lot of women generally. "I wanted to belong," she says, "to be part of Tom's wild gang, no matter the cost" (ibid.).
Hart is actually not the first writer to carry Becky's story into the 20th century. In 1984, Bernard Sabath, a playwright best known for The Boys in Autumn (1981), which reunites Tom and Huck in middle age, published a play about a middle-aged Becky titled Hannibal Blues. That dramatic work brings Becky back to Hannibal as a more strongly feminist character than Hart's Becky. However, it has been seen and read by too few people to have made any lasting impression, so it is fair to say that Hart is working in a new field.
To fit Becky into Tom's world, Hart treats Tom Sawyer much as John Seelye treats Huckleberry Finn in The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1970, 1987). Seelye essentially rewrote Mark Twain's novel, omitting portions he believed did not belong--such as the evasion chapters--revising other parts, and using stronger language throughout. Hart's story is mostly original but incorporates substantial parts of Tom Sawyer and makes changes at least as significant as those that Seelye makes in his book. Seelye's goal was to make Huckleberry Finn more realistic in the context of its time. Hart's goal is to make Becky Thatcher a more realistic female character by rescuing her from the Victorian myth of woman as angel in the house. That is a legitimate objective. After all, Tom Sawyer is essentially a boys' story in which everything is seen through the eyes of boys. It is thus perfectly reasonable to assume that while Tom Sawyer may reflect how boys remember its events, it does not necessarily depict those events accurately. Hart's Becky is thus a kind of corrective. However, while Hart liberates Becky, she may inflict more damage than necessary on her source materials and weaken her own book in the process.
Becky is a well-written book but one that demands a close reading to appreciate its nuances as its shifts around in time. Its conceit is that it claims to be a true story about real people with whom Sam Clemens grew up in Hannibal and later used as characters in his novels. In her prologue, the elderly narrator indicates that "Becky Thatcher" is not her real name (a name she never reveals); she evidently uses it simply because it is the name Clemens invented for the character he based on her. It thus seems to follow that "Tom Sawyer," "Huck Finn," "Aunt Polly," "Sid," "Mary," "Judge Thatcher," the "Jim" of Huckleberry Finn, and other names appearing throughout her narrative are also Clemens's inventions for people whose real names were different. This is an intriguing premise on which to build a novel, but Hart's selection of names raises some questions.
Becky's central narrative opens in Hannibal, Missouri (not St. Petersburg) in 1864, when Becky is about twenty-six years old and is married to Sid Hopkins, Tom Sawyer's cousin and the son of Tom's late aunt, the "widow" Polly Hopkins. Becky and Sid share Polly's house with two sons and Sid's sister, Mary, a consumptive who has been advised never to marry or have children. In Tom Sawyer, Sid is Tom's half-brother, not his cousin, but his connections to Polly and Tom's cousin Mary are unclear. Making Sid Tom's cousin and Mary's brother clarifies some points, but making Sid Polly's son introduces fresh confusion. For example, if Becky is Polly's daughter-in-law, why does she consistently call that woman "Aunt Polly"? Equally puzzling is Becky's substitution of "the widow Watson" for Huckleberry Finn's "Miss Watson." The choice of "Hopkins" for Sid's family name is also curious, as the only character in Tom Sawyer with that name is Mother Hopkins, whom Huck Finn believes to be a witch. Perhaps Hart is simply having some fun with us here. Could the many inconsistencies and ostensible errors in the novel be deliberate hoaxes on readers?
The novel's central storyline traces Becky's life from the Civil War's final year through the aftermath of the 1876 massacre of Custer's troops at Little Bighorn--a crucial event within the novel. Although Becky loves Sid, it is clear that she has never stopped loving Tom, whose name she repeatedly evokes. As her account unfolds, she often looks back to earlier periods to fill in background information and to comment on incidents that Clemens distorted in Tom Sawyer, a book that she regards as a betrayal of her friendship with Clemens.
Several experiences prove Becky to be tougher than most men. Concerned about Sid's safety in the chaotic fighting among Union, Confederate, and brigand factions in southern Missouri during the Civil War, she sets off to bring him home. Dressed as a man, she joins a Union outfit and acquits herself well in a heated battle. After finding Sid wounded, she nurses him and gets him home. To escape Missouri's growing anarchy, she persuades Sid to take the family west, where Sam Clemens has already gone. The family arrives in Virginia City, Nevada, where Clemens is still reporting for the Territorial Enterprise. There she teaches school while Sid struggles to find work as a lawyer. When Clemens moves on to San Francisco, he bequeaths a mining claim to Sid, who soon strikes a rich silver vein. The family's finances dramatically improve, but Sid's involvement with a vigilante group leads to his assassination, making Becky a widow. Becky then sells most of her interest in the mine and relocates to San Francisco, where she takes the nearly indigent Clemens into her home. Although Becky is set for life from her mining income, she finds an outlet for her restlessness by helping Clemens write stories for the San Francisco Call. In what will surely be a surprise to those who have studied Clemens's life, it was Becky, not Clemens, who wrote a story about police abuse of Chinese residents that the Call refused to print.
Underlying Becky's central narrative thread is Becky's struggle to work out her feelings for Tom Sawyer, from whom she has been estranged since an incident that occurred in her childhood. In her many narrative flashbacks, she explains how as a girl she forced her way into Tom and Huck's "Freebooters" gang and eventually regarded her freedom to go off on nocturnal adventures with the boys as the most important thing in her life. Little Sammy Clemens (who is described as younger than Becky and her friends, although he was born in 1835, while Becky was apparently born around 1838), knew about Becky's exploits but deliberately omitted her from several of Tom and Huck's most dramatic adventures when he later wrote Tom Sawyer.
Becky's first important adventure occurred the night that Tom and Huck saw Dr. Robinson killed in the town's graveyard. Chapter 9 of Tom Sawyer fails to mention that Becky was with the boys that night. Moreover, it was Muff Potter, not harmless Injun Joe, who killed the doctor. Further surprises follow. Several days after the murder, both Tom and Huck publicly testify that they saw Injun Joe do the killing. Becky is outraged and puzzled by Tom's blatant lie and willingness to let an innocent man be hanged. Later, she learns why Tom has lied: He has a morbid fear and deep hatred of Indians going back to his infancy, when Indians killed his parents. He despises Injun Joe merely because he is an Indian and wants him dead.
The Tom of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer admires Indians, but even in that novel it takes all the courage he can muster to testify publicly against Injun Joe, who is guilty of murder. Would a boy with a preternatural fear of Indians publicly accuse an innocent Indian of murder? Becky herself wants to see justice done but does not come to Injun Joe's defense for fear of losing her freedom if her parents find out she has been sneaking out at night. Instead, Becky begs Tom to tell the truth. In one of her story's strangest episodes, she has an accidental encounter with Injun Joe, who begs for a chance to ask Tom to tell the truth. Joe agrees to meet Becky and Tom inside the town's great cave during Becky's coming picnic party. How unlikely is that? Given Becky's awareness of Tom's fear of Indians, should she expect him to welcome a face-to-face confrontation, deep inside a dark cave, with an Indian whom he has falsely accused of murder? Naturally, the moment Tom sees Joe in the cave, he grabs Becky and runs. They soon get lost.
The cave scene that follows is similar to that in Tom Sawyer, except for its resolution: It is Becky, not Tom, who finds a way out of the cave several days later. Afterward, as in Tom Sawyer, Judge Thatcher has the entrance to the cave sealed to keep other people from getting lost until Tom reveals that Injun Joe is still inside. Again as in the original story, the cave is reopened and Joe's dead body is found inside the entrance. Now, however, Becky is more disgusted than ever with Tom for having caused Joe's death. Why Tom should be any more responsible than Becky is unclear. In fact, why Joe would have remained inside the cave for several days after the abortive meeting is also unclear, as the cave is not his hideout in this story.
There is naturally much more to this novel than what has been outlined here. Huck Finn and Jim play minor roles throughout the narrative, and Tom eventually comes back into Becky's life in a big way. Meanwhile, as Becky repeatedly professes her love for Tom, one wonders why. Stripped of much of his heroism and dignity, Tom has little left to be admired. Sid is easily the better man, and Becky occasionally admits as much. The end of the novel offers Tom a chance for redemption, but if he takes it, Becky may lose him forever.
In an interview included in the promotional material sent with this book's review copy, Lenore Hart says she "read hundreds of books on Missouri, Nevada, San Francisco, and Panama and Cuba" and "verified everything in historical sources." Perhaps that claim should be taken with the same grain of salt applied to Clemens's claim to have invested twelve years in the research for Joan of Arc (1896). Hart's novel does a fine job of depicting conditions in Missouri during the Civil War and the flush times of Virginia City, but historical errors and anachronisms often intrude throughout her book. For example, Becky arrives in Hannibal aboard a train from St. Louis around the year 1849 (p. 13), but the real town's first railroad did not begin operating until 1859, and its St. Louis line opened even later.
A smaller error, but one mentioned more than once, is Becky's allusion to living on "the crookedest street in San Francisco" (p. 4). This is an evident allusion to the famous Lombard Street; however, that street was not made crooked until the 1920s. More jarring to those familiar with Mark Twain's writings are Becky's repeated descriptions of pre-Civil War steamboatmen wearing uniforms. In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Clemens remarks that the postwar appearance of uniforms on steamboats was a bigger surprise to him than "all the other changes put together" (chapter 25).
There is much to be said for elevating Becky's role in Tom Sawyer. However, must that be done at the expense of diminishing Tom so greatly that little remains for Becky to love? Becky also does significant damage to Huckleberry Finn, whose narrative is driven by Pap Finn's return to St. Petersburg to claim Huck's share of the wealth Huck and Tom divide after finding Injun Joe's treasure in the cave. The Joe of Becky hides no treasure, so there can be no fortune for Pap to claim. Becky does acknowledge that Jim sought his freedom in a voyage down the river with Huck; however, Jim somehow returned to Hannibal as a slave. He was later freed, but perhaps it would have been kinder to leave him out of this story.
Becky is an often entertaining and engaging novel, and many readers will enjoy it as the story of a spunky girl caught up in exciting adventures and obsessed with her one true love. However, the publisher's flyer may go too far in describing the book as "in the spirit of Finn and Wicked . . ." Comparing Becky to Finn is a major stretch. On the other hand, if Becky resembles the backstory of the wicked witch of The Wizard of Oz, maybe there is more to Mother Hopkins's role in Tom Sawyer than meets the eye.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: R. Kent Rasmussen's most recent books are
Critical Companion to Mark Twain (2007), a two-volume revision of Mark
Twain A to Z (1995) and Bloom's How to Write About Mark Twain (2008).
of Jon Clinch's Finn appeared on the Forum in April 2007 and can
now be read on the Forum's Web site.