If I Were Huckleberry Finn, I’d Do the Things He Did*

huckleberryfinnAs 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Honey Brown, Mari Strachan, Mark Haddon, Mark Twain, William Kent Krueger

23 responses to “If I Were Huckleberry Finn, I’d Do the Things He Did*

  1. Another fine book which combines a coming-of-age story with a mystery is Gladys Mitchell’s The Rising of the Moon. The book is narrated by one of two schoolboys who act as detectives in the book, a thirteen year old boy named Simon Innes. Mitchell uses this narrator very skillfully. In the small English village of Brentford, someone is murdering young women, the murders taking place each month at the full moon. Young Simon is drawn into the mystery surrounding the murders, along with his eleven-year-old brother Keith, when they begin to fear that their older brother may be suspected of the murders. Originally published in 1945, it’s very good Mitchell.

    • Thanks, Les. I admit, I’ve not read all of Mitchell’s work, and this is one of those I’ve not (yet) gotten to read. It sounds like an absolutely perfect fit, though, and I appreciate your adding it in.

  2. Anne Hagan

    I hadn’t read “What Was Lost” but it sounds very interesting and I’m putting it on my list. You’ve made me want to know what happened to Kate. As for me, I do what Huckleberry Finn did too. Life’s about the journey, after all!

    • It certainly is, Anne! And I highly recommend What Was Lost. I try to be as objective as I can about the books I mention on this blog. But I can’t about this one; it’s an excellent read.

  3. I have struggled with the idea of children detecting before but I do like the sound of The Earth Hums in B Flat

    • I think you might like that one, Cleo. It’s got a great Welsh setting, and I do like Gwenni Morgan’s character. If you do give it a go, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. Julia Upjohn is probably my favorite child character in Christie, Margot. An interesting young pair can be found in Helen McCloy’s Mr. Splitfoot, a very good and eerie mystery indeed.

    But I wanted to say something about Huck Finn. I did my thesis in college on Twain, and HF was easily my favorite book. I had taught it in high school a couple of times when we started receiving a lot of material about how to introduce it in this modern age. I used that material as a pre-reading activity one year, and then we jumped into the novel.

    At the end, I asked the students if they were glad they had read it. A brilliant young lady, the only African-American student in the class (and she went on to either Stanford or Harvard, i think) said quite sensitively that she was sorry she had read it and that she wished it would not be taught.

    I think it’s a great novel, but it is a book of its time, and we have to consider what it makes of black characters and the effect that it has on black readers. As someone who has grappled back and forth with casual racism in Golden Age detective stories, I have to think twice when a literary classic has that effect on a large, and historically abused, portion of our population.

    I’ve never taught the book again.

    • Thanks, Brad, for your thoughts on the novel. Also, I appreciate your sharing your experience teaching the book. As you say, it’s of its time, and it is important to consider the impact it has on all of its readers. As someone who understands and appreciates both teaching and literature, I can see how you would be torn about the book, and about teaching it. That’s part of the reason for which this book is so controversial. I give you a lot of credit for reflecting on all of this, and taking the decision you felt you needed to take.

      As to your suggestion of the McCoy, thanks! One of the things I like best about blogging is the helpful comments I get from people kind enough to read my posts. I always learn – every time.

  5. I very much enjoyed reading this post – I always love how you make me consider picking up books that I’ve not bothered with in the past. I really enjoyed What Was Lost but have had The Earth Hums in B Flat on my TBR for such a long time as it never seems to jump out at me. This post has made me see that it has themes that I enjoy reading so I will make a point of giving this book a chance.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll enjoy it if you do read it, Hayley. It’s got such a solid sense of place and context, and I like Gwenni Morgan’s character quite a lot. I know what you mean about books not jumping out at you, but this one’s worth a read, I think. And thanks for the kind words.

  6. Would I like to sit in a quiet corner and reread Tom Sawyer and Hulkleberry Finn? You bet I would! They charmed me into reading books in school. Thanks, Margot.

  7. kathy d

    I liked What Was Lost and loved Gwenni Morgan in The Earth Hums in B Flat, a great character in a stark setting. I like her questioning about religion, people, families, etc.
    Ordinary Grace is poignant, very well-done. Worth reading.
    And Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks is different, a unique story, unsettling, but good.
    So, four wins here, not bad.

    • Very glad you enjoyed those novels, Kathy. I think they all give effective portraits of characters who have their own adventures during their coming-of-age years.

  8. Hmm… I re-read Huck Finn for the first time since I was a child recently, and it’s one of the many classics that left me scratching my head a bit as to why it has the reputation it has. But as you say, it’s of its time and doubtless has been an influence, though whether that’s a good thing or not… well, this jury member is still deciding! However, I do love Cat Among the Pigeons… 😉

    • That is a good ‘un, isn’t it, FictionFan? As The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I know what you mean about its influence. It did have quite an impact, for better or worse. Whatever its literary merit, it’s gotten woven in our popular culture. As you say, whether that’s a good thing or not is less clear.

  9. It certainly has been influential, not only for entertainment but for writers too. Imagine writing a book like that? I couldn’t even imagine what the hoopla feels like, but it’d be fun to find out. 😉

    • It certainly has had an impact, Sue. I can’t imagine, either, what it might be like to write a book that has that much influence. I wonder if Twain was aware that that would happen.

  10. kathy d

    Twain was very popular and quite witty.I thin he had a tough hide and took whatever reactions to his books and other writings that were thrown at him.
    We could use his sarcasm just about now — but then again we have Oliver, Colbert, Meyers, Bee, and many more witty, smart people to comment on today’s goings-on.

  11. I love Margery Alliingham’s Fashion in Shrouds for many reasons, but one is that there is a very small part of the book about a young schoolboy, Georgia’s son, devastated by the death of someone who gave him some much-needed stability in life. Campion talks to him and tries to help him deal with his issues.

    • Oh, that is a good example, Moira – trust you to think of just the right one. It’s interesting she gave Campion those depths, I think. And it’s realistic; a young person would need some guidance after a loss like that.

  12. Pingback: Writing Links 2/2717 – Where Genres Collide

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