The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain,  Read by Tom Parker At some point in my youth I developed an instinctive loathing of Mark Twain. I'm not sure exactly why I came to so hate the prospect of reading him but there it was, and there it remained until now.

If you're reading this in or around January 2011, you may have heard about the recent hullaballoo around a new edition of Huck (2011), where the editor - Alan Gribben of Auburn (in Alabama) - has decided to spare school children (and other readers) from the discomfort of having to read the word "nigger" 219 times while otherwise enjoying that rascal Huck's adventures along the Mississippi with Old Jim, a runaway nig... - excuse me, runaway slave. In light of this, and a moderate desire to revisit the book and see if 30 years had changed my opinion, I checked out the Blackstone audio CD version from my library.

The good things:

1. Tom Parker, the reader, is quite good at creating distinctive voices for most of the characters in the novel. Sometimes I listen to an audiobook and get distracted thinking about how I would have read the passage but in this case, Parker's tone, pace and intonation are spot on.

2. There were some truly fine scenes sprinkled throughout the book. The first few chapters were good. I was always interested in trying to figure out how Huck would extricate himself from some of his scrapes. And there is, of course, the famous moment when Huck decides that he'll risk being called a "nigger lover" and "abolitionist" to help Jim reach freedom.

I'd also point out an earlier scene where Huck is explaining about a (fictitious) boiler explosion on a paddle-wheel. The woman he's talking to asks if anyone was hurt and Huck says, "No. A nigger was killed." The woman replies, "Oh, that's good."* Twain does have a masterful sense of the people and attitudes to be found in mid-19th century America, and our uncanny ability to ignore the humanity of the people around us. (Also well played in the King's and the Duke's attempts to bilk the Wilkes girls of their property.)

The bad:

In two words: Tom Sawyer. Well, not Tom himself. Like other readers, the lengths Tom goes to to make sure Jim's escape is "properly" done are amusing and well written, and I found myself laughing out loud in some places (very rare for me) but I feel that Twain copped out the moment Huck reaches the Phelps' farm. From the moment Aunt Sally mistakes Huck for Tom, it's a series of absurd coincidences, topped off by one of the most deus ex machina of dei ex machinae in literature - Miss Watson has died and, remorseful of her treatement of Jim, has granted him his freedom in her will. Huck's fears and his and Jim's efforts to escape are all rendered meaningless in a sentence. I had looked forward to finding out how Twain would extricate his heroes, and felt cheated.**

I don't regret revisiting Huck Finn. I'm still not a Twain fan and will not rush to buy the collected works any time soon. I'm just not attracted to his style nor to the period he writes about (at least not in fiction). But he should remain on the Required Reading list of all American schools (late middle early high school, I would say).

* I paraphrase here since I do not have a hardcopy in front of me and have no clue where the track is on the CDs but that's the gist of the scene.

** If Gribben felt the need to rewrite anything in the novel, it should have been the last part.