Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 11 March 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
A popular form of literary pastiche--broadly speaking--is fleshed-out stories about minor characters from classic works. Perhaps the best-known example is Tom Stoppard's absurdist 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which reconstructs the backstage adventures of minor characters in William Shakespeare's Hamlet to show how they reached their unhappy fates. Other notable examples include George Macdonald Fraser's novels about Flashman, the sadistic bully in Thomas Hughes's 1841 novel Tom Brown's School Days, and Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West about the witch in L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Fraser's and Maguire's books both succeed in transforming nasty villains into sympathetic, even lovable, characters.
Mark Twain's works have inspired many pastiches, but surprisingly few of them have focused on his minor characters. Think for a moment of the stories that could be written about Connecticut Yankee's Clarence and Sandy, Pudd'nhead Wilson's Capello twins, and Huckleberry Finn's King and Duke. That type of pastiche has not, however, been entirely neglected. The best example is certainly Jon Clinch's brilliant 2007 novel Finn, which tells the backstory of Huck Finn's depraved father. Though drawing on characters and incidents from Huckleberry Finn, Clinch's novel remains largely true to its source while offering an original story powerful enough to stand entirely on its own. It does not, however, attempt to make Pap more sympathetic. It actually makes him even more vile.
Another Mark Twain character who has inspired pastiche is Tom Sawyer's Becky Thatcher. She may be Mark Twain's most famous female character, but that is probably true because so few other female characters stand out and because of modern efforts to make Mark Twain's novel more appealing to girls. Within the context of Tom Sawyer, Becky is a decidedly minor and bland figure. When Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn he couldn't even remember her name and called her "Bessie Thatcher." (He corrected that error in proofs, but his change was not made in printed books until a century later.) In an attempt to elevate Becky from the insipid character of Tom Sawyer, Lenore Hart published the young-adult novel Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher in 2008. Narrated by an elderly Becky looking back on her youth, Hart's novel corrects the "lies" Sammy Clemens (another of the novel's characters) told in his own book and continues Becky's and Tom's stories into adulthood--something Clemens himself never did. Hart's Becky not only mixes it up with the boys but also plays a leading a role in the most dramatic action. On the whole, Hart succeeds at giving the Tom Sawyer story a strong feminist slant, but at the expense of doing some damage to Mark Twain's characters and story lines, as I pointed out in my Forum review of her book when it came out.
Now comes a new slant on Becky from first-time novelist Jessica Lawson in The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher. Apparently aimed at a somewhat younger audience than Hart's book, Lawson's novel reveals little evidence of having been influenced by the latter, but it carries Hart's feminist perspective even further. Like Hart's story, Lawson's novel is narrated by Becky herself, and her Becky is even more daring and adventurous. However, it differs in being related by a young Becky shortly after the events it describes. This puts the story in the same structural category as the Mark Twain stories narrated by Huck Finn and gives Lawson room for possible sequels, as it leaves her Becky eager for more adventures.
The early part of Lenore Hart's novel is a retelling of major incidents in Tom Sawyer from Becky's perspective. Lawson's book is less a retelling of those incidents than a wholesale reimagining of the world of Tom Sawyer. Her book reinvents Mark Twain's characters, places Becky in the midst of most of the action, and moves the setting from the 1840s to 1860. Lawson probably shifted the time period so she could insert an adult Samuel Clemens in the story and remain, more or less, consistent with known facts about his life. Her fictional Clemens shows up in St. Petersburg as the pilot and caretaker of a steamboat stranded there for several weeks while he awaits a vital replacement part for the boat. The real Clemens piloted steamboats on the Lower Mississippi from 1857 until 1861, so it makes sense to introduce him as an experienced pilot in 1860. He is not known to have piloted a boat north of St. Louis, but that is little consequence in this novel, as St. Petersburg itself seems to be _below_ St. Louis. Lawson has Clemens staying in Tom Sawyer's home while he awaits the steamboat part, allowing him to observe events, give advice to Becky, and jot down notes for books he hopes to write. In a clever conceit, Lawson has Becky give him ideas that readers familiar with Mark Twain's works will readily recognize. It thus might be said that Becky is not only the most adventurous person in St. Petersburg but is also the creator of some of Mark Twain's best writing ideas.
Another feature both Hart's and Lawson's novels have in common is their emasculation of Tom Sawyer and improvement of his half-brother, Sid. Hart's book makes Becky more daring than Tom and has her marry Sid, but it leaves Tom with positive traits and makes it clear that Becky has always loved him. Lawson's book goes much further, making Becky adventurous to the point of dangerous recklessness, while reducing Tom to a cowardly and universally disliked snitch inclined to wet his pants when frightened and to flee at the first sign of danger. In contrast, she makes Sid a strong, bold, and wholly admirable character and, curiously, also makes him older than Tom. By the end of the story, Tom achieves a small measure of redemption but remains a pitifully insipid weakling whom no reader could possibly admire.
In his Forum review of scholar Bill Macnaughton's 2013 novel Mark Twain's Civil War, Kevin Mac Donnell defined a "Twain't" as any book using Mark Twain himself or his writings or characters as a touchstone. After outlining possible variations of Twain'ts, he concluded that "whoever their authors and whatever their intent they all share one common trait: whatever they might be, they just ain't Twain." Why, then, should any person who studies or admires Mark Twain want to read such books?
I would argue that the best Twain'ts can be as valuable as good scholarship by providing insights that purely scholarly writing might hesitate to suggest. Clinch's Finn, for example, raises challenging points about Huckleberry Finn rarely discussed elsewhere, such as how Pap came to die in the floating house, what made him such a despicable character, whether Huck's attempt to fake his own death would really have fooled anyone, and exactly who Huck's mother was. The explanations Finn provides may come out of Clinch's own imagination, but they are plausible and do no major violence to Mark Twain's work, leaving us to think more deeply about what is behind Huckleberry Finn. Some Twain'ts, however, may merely irritate us.
Lenore Hart's novel about Becky Thatcher seems to occupy a middle ground in this regard. It departs further from Mark Twain's fiction than Clinch's Finn, but her basic premise--that Sam Clemens lied about her in Tom Sawyer gives her book latitude to take liberties. After all, even Huck Finn admitted that Tom Sawyer didn't tell the whole truth. After reading Hart's novel, it's conceivable that a reader going back to Tom Sawyer might ask if it's possible there is more to Becky Thatcher than Mark Twain is letting on. That sort of question, however, is not one that readers of Jessica Lawson's novel are likely to ask.
Lawson's The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher is a much greater departure from Mark Twain than Clinch's and Hart's books. Nevertheless, it may still offer insights into Mark Twain's modern readers. Why, one wonders, would anyone writing a novel involving one of the most beloved characters in American literature do so much to demean that character? In Lawson's novel, Tom Sawyer isn't merely a sniveling coward, he's almost repulsive. Is Lawson's book a misandrist rebuke of Tom Sawyer designed to put down all men while raising the novel's female characters? I'm inclined to think not; otherwise, how does one account for Sid's almost exalted status in the novel? Morever, if the book is an expression of a feminist point of view, it has a most peculiar contradiction. Note Becky's strange words that open chapter 1:
"My left leg twitched at the tickle of another night-boy. Hidden by the wide trunk of a river sycamore, I shifted in my crouch and reached a hand inside Jon's overalls to trap and smack the creepy skitter. ..."
What in the world is a young girl's hand doing inside a boy's clothes? A page or two later, we learn that Jon is the name of Becky's dead older brother, whose overalls she is wearing. Against her parents' objections, Becky prefers to wear the clothes of her beloved brother. Moreover, she always carries a bag of marbles he had owned, believing that through them she can channel his thoughts. Can Becky be considered a feminist protagonist if much of the time she thinks she's acting on a boy's advice, while getting her courage from carrying her brother's balls in a sack?
Although Becky has a good relationship with her loving father, Judge Thatcher, she is estranged from her mother, who has gone into a shell since Jon died a year or so earlier. Becky laments that after her brother died, her mother forgot her existence. A lot seems to be going on in Becky's family. Does any of it have anything to do with Lawson's unsavory depiction of Tom Sawyer?
Considering that this book is aimed at young readers, it is also odd that it has something near an obsession with bodily fluids. It contains repeated allusions to characters peeing in their pants, spitting, pooping, scratching "skitter" (presumably "skeeter") bites, and picking scabs. The vile schoolmaster Mr. Dobbins calls his pupils "maggots," and Becky delights in imagining mosquitoes laying eggs in an open wound he has incurred. Strong stuff for young readers. There's no Injun Joe in this novel, but Dobbins turns out to be almost equally nasty, and there are also some other loathsome villains. I hope it doesn't spoil readers' enjoyment of the book to reveal that Becky's courage and spunkiness triumph over all adversities.
It's unlikely admirers of Mark Twain will find much reason to read Lawson's novel. How might others respond to the book? Judging by customer reviews on Amazon.com, it seems to be a hit among young readers. A typical comment calls the book "a fun-filled, rollicking romp of adventure," adding "Wow! Becky Thatcher is one fearless, spunky, and quick on her feet kind of a girl ... She is also feisty, fun, compassionate, and struggling with the withdrawal of her mother from society, and from her, while dealing with the loss of her brother in the best way she knows how."
Can there be any harm in letting young people read such a book?
Perhaps not. I am, however, concerned about the way Simon & Schuster is
packaging the book. The firm sells it as a stand-alone title but also offers
it in a very attractive boxed set that includes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry
Finn. Each volume in the set has a similarly designed cover with matching
typography. Anyone examining the set might think all three books were created
together. Aside from the authors' names on the books, there is nothing to
warn readers the books were written by different authors in different centuries.
Consequently, any child reading Tom Sawyer and then turning to the
Becky Thatcher book-or t'uther way around--is going to be bewildered. Any
child reading the Becky book first might not even want to read Mark Twain's
books, and that possibility is a shame.