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The following review appeared 5 August 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2008 Mark Twain Forum
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As with Sherlock Holmes and other eternal characters, Huckleberry Finn should never grow old and should never die. In an interesting gedanken, Dan Walker, a professor of English accepts the events from Twain's fragment, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians as part of their canonical experiences, and builds a sequel from there. He grows up the boys, as well as Becky and Sid, through the Civil War--the crucifying experience of their lives, as it was in real life for many 19th-century Americans.
When readers-who-become-writers get emotionally involved with memorable characters such as Huck, Tom, Sid and Becky, the wish or desire often arises to see them grow up and to find out what happened later. Clemens felt it himself, and toyed with the idea of Huck and Tom reuniting as old men. Out of this desire comes, for some characters, sequels and a longer career in their fictive world. Jo's Boys, by Louisa May Alcott (1886), provides an example from the same period. Among professional writers (as distinct from aspiring writers of fanfic) historical fiction may be best understood as a sub-species of speculative fiction. All speculative fiction addresses the question "What If?" In this case, what if Huck Finn (the fictional character) became involved in the events and major personages in the Civil War, especially the southern military heroes Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson?
Historical fiction also often involves grouping historical persons into dramatic circumstances which enable the telling of a good story, as Gore Vidal does in Lincoln. In this novel, Walker clusters many well-known military and political figures from this period. The premise is that after the events related in Twain's fragment, Huck and Tom among the Indians, Huck begins keeping journals which are later accessible to others who had subsequent interaction with him, including Sid Sawyer. The plot plays out thus: During the Siege of Veracruz (March 1847), Huck joins with federal forces who are involved in this action, part of the Mexican-American War. He begins a foster-fatherly relationship with Robert E. Lee, and in this same period has a romantic encounter with Mariposa, a young woman of a noble Mexican family. Not long after, still a teenager, Huck attempts studies at West Point through Lee's instrumentality, but his efforts end in failure and he departs abruptly. A few years later, events leading to the Civil War are underway. Huck is involved with Union forces in the West; Tom has an ambiguous role, as a correspondent and double--or triple--agent. Becky is a nurse and Sid is a Union intelligence officer. Sid and Tom cooperate in enlisting Huck's aid in a strike against Jackson, and by extension, against Lee. In the crisis, Huck opts not to attempt to kill Lee--as Huck might say--"I ain't no assassin and I ain't no parricide." Instead (after the death of Jackson) he escapes West to an implied reunion with his Mexican love. Sid survives the war and in later life has time to contemplate his encounters with the redoubtable Huck Finn.
Twain worked this continuation ground himself in A Double-Barreled Detective Story (1902), a parody in which Sherlock Holmes visits America. In Holmesiana, stories such as these are considered "non-canon"--i.e. not a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Similarly, however, Twain's canon of what Henry Nash Smith referred to as "the matter of Hannibal" has also been mined as the premise for many continuations and retellings. Walker's book comes among a cluster of these: The Further Adventures of Huck Finn by Greg Matthews (1983), Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians as continued by Lee Nelson (2003), Finn by Jon Clinch (2007), and Becky by Lenore Hart (2008).
Walker, however, does not make reference to the events of Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), or Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy (unfinished, 1897). Understandably, he opts not to invoke the events of Tom Sawyer, Abroad (1894) or Schoolhouse Hill (unfinished), as they stand in a different category as works of science fiction or fantasy.
A valuable part of this book, as a good read that gets you thinking, is how Walker makes real the well-known "brother-against-brother" struggles and divided loyalties arising out of the national conflict. In his ante-bellum world, Huck was coming into maturity as a conflicted resident of a state--Missouri--in which slavery was legal. If we stipulate, following Walker, that Huck could have had involvement in the Mexican conflict (1846-48), it makes sense that his subsequent involvement in events leading to the Civil War would have inclined his support towards the Union side. The possible politics of Sid, Tom and Becky in such a context would be much harder to assess. Would Tom, in particular, have been for the Union? Or might he have more likely gone for the Confederacy? (Or, at least, for Missouri against Union occupation, as Clemens was himself, albeit briefly?) Walker navigates these murky waters well. A central insight of Walker's novel is his equating Huck's sense of alienation from his Missouri society and internal conflict with his conscience, with Lee's real-world struggle with the irreconcilable calls of duty to the Union and his sense of duty to his native state, Virginia. Walker makes us see this connection, tying the fictional "St. Petersburg" to real-life Richmond.
Walker's characterizations, specifically the tone and the dialect, are good. Huck's voice is a primary challenge, and in the journals segments of this novel, Walker's Huck (who has been through a little more schooling than the Huck of Twain's originals) rings fairly true. Additionally, Sid's character is developed well in this novel, and takes shapes as a more fully conflicted individual. Tom sounds and acts just about right. Becky and Mariposa are less developed than are the boys. This reviewer would also have liked to have heard more from Ol' Jim. The level of detail for the battlegrounds and other sites is impressive, and many of these data points are sure to be recognized by students of the period. Overall, this novel should be most fully enjoyed by aficionados of Huck and Tom who also happen to be Civil War buffs. For readers who are not drawn in by the terrain and tactics of military encounters, the "you-are-there" feel of some of locale descriptions may be distracting.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Dave Davis is a researcher and analyst for a national copyright licensing organization. Dave has an academic background in history and library science.