As this is posted, it’s 132 years since the US publication of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the novel had been published two months earlier in the UK). As you’ll know, the novel has been the focus of a lot of controversy (‘fodder’ for a post in itself, perhaps). And it wasn’t roundly accepted. Louisa May Alcott, for instance, wanted Twain to,
‘stop writing for…our pure-minded lads and lasses…if he cannot think of something better to tell…’
Still, the novel has become a classic. Even those who don’t care for it acknowledge its influence (and Twain’s) on literature in general, and US literature in particular.
But The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn’t the only exploration of coming of age and self-discovery. There are lots of examples out there, including examples from crime fiction.
For instance, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place mostly at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. Late one night, Grace Springer, the school’s games mistress, is shot in the brand-new sports pavilion. The police are called in, but they don’t make much progress before there’s a kidnapping. Then, there’s another murder. One of the pupils, fifteen-year-old Julia Upjohn, finds an important clue to the murders. She’s smart enough to know that she’s now in grave danger, so she decides to do something about it. She sneaks out of the school, and goes to visit Hercule Poirot. She’s heard of him, because her mother is good friends with Maureen Summerhayes (Remember her, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead?). Poirot returns to the school with Julia, and works with the police to find out what’s behind the incidents at the school. That summer term turns out to be quite a time of adventure and self-discovery for Julia.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces readers to fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, but is quite high-functioning, so he attends school, works with a therapist, and mostly lives what a lot of people would call a ‘regular’ life – or close to it. Still, because of his autism, there are a lot of subtleties and nuances that Christopher isn’t aware of when he interacts with people. One day, he discovers the body of the dog that belongs to the people next door. They’re prepared to blame Christopher for the animal’s death, but he knows he didn’t harm the dog. So, he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. He starts asking questions and following leads. As he does, he learns important truths about himself, and he has more than one adventure.
So does ten-year-old Kate Meaney, whom we meet in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. The story begins in 1984, in a rather bleak Midlands city. Kate wants very much to be a detective; she even has her own agency, called Falcon Investigations. When the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens nearby, Kate is sure that she’ll find lots of suspicious activity there, so she spends quite a lot of time at the new mall. She has more than one adventure as she goes in search of criminals. But her grandmother, Ivy, thinks that the girl would be much better off going away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate and her friend, Adrian Palmer, go to the school, but only Adrian returns. No sign of Kate – not even a body – is found. Then, twenty years later, a mall security officer starts to see strange images on his security camera: a girl who looks a lot like Kate. By chance, he meets Lisa Palmer, who works in the mall, and is Adrian’s younger sister. Each in a different way, they go back to the past, as you might say, and we learn what happened to Kate.
Mari Strachen’s The Earth Hums in B-Flat is the story of twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who lives in a small Welsh village in the 1950s. She doesn’t quite fit in where she lives, as she’s a bit of a dreamer. But she lives a fairly normal life until the day one of the locals, Ifan Evans, disappears, and is later found dead. For various reasons, Gwenni wants to find out who’s responsible. So, she starts searching for the truth. That search leads her on more than one adventure, some more dangerous than others. And in the process, she also finds out quite a bit about herself.
In William Kent Kreueger’s Ordinary Grace, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother, Jake, are growing up in 1961 New Bremen, Minnesota. Everything changes for Frank the day a local boy is killed in what looks like a railroad accident. Frank knows he’s not supposed to go down to the railroad tracks, but he also wants a bit of an adventure. So, he and Jake go down to the tracks, where they find a dead man. Frank can’t resist the chance to see the dead body more closely, so he goes to have a look. And he and Jake get drawn into a much greater adventure than they’d thought. Then, tragedy strikes Frank’s family, and he learns a great deal about himself, about family, and about growing up.
Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks introduces readers to fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. As the story begins, he’s finally worked up the courage to leave his abusive father, Joe. Adam’s been very much kept under lock and key for most of his life, so he has very little knowledge of the outside world. Fortunately for Adam, a young man named Billy Benson happens to visit the house just as Adam’s preparing to leave. He befriends Adam, and the two spend the next week together. Billy knows all about how to scrounge food and a place to stay, and Adam learns a great deal from him. As the two get to know each other, they learn some things that neither is entirely comfortable accepting. And they learn that they are connected to each other, and to an abduction that took place ten years earlier.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Fireside Books’ Leaders and Legacies series. These books feature Canada’s prime ministers as young sleuths, and follow their adventures and growing-up experiences.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may not have been the first coming-of-age adventure, but it’s one of the best known. And a lot of people consider it one of the best written. And, whatever you think of it, it’s certainly been influential.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sam Lewis, Joe Young, and Cliff Hess’ Huckleberry Finn.