It's beyond a trope that great books are universal, but I was struck by the ability of this slender tale to grasp subjects of abiding interest to any reader just on the verge of growing up. One of these, of course, is the friction between the safe, constrained world of childhood and the terrible joys of mature freedom, lawless adventure, romantic love, the heroic pleasure of cutting a figure in the eyes of the world. I found unexpectedly touching the scene in which Tom and his friend Joe Harper, who have run off to live in a boys' paradise on a Mississippi island, begin to sicken of freedom, to feel the pangs of desire for rules, home, the small boundaries imposed by their mothers. "Swimming's no good," Joe says. "I don't seem to care for it, somehow, when there ain't anybody to say I sha'n't go in." I've seen it many times at the end of the day, how boys who at the height of their energy seem like supermen, with their alarming sophistication, their rumbustious strength, their overweening need to push limits, suddenly, almost pathetically, ask to be children again.
But what most strikes an adult revisiting Tom Sawyer is how dark it is, how filled with peril and death. I'd remembered the book as tame by contemporary standards, but compared to it, Harry Potter is almost Pollyannaish. Clemens well understood the preadolescent fascination with mortality in all its forms, how just at the time one approaches the fullness of life, one becomes obsessed with the inevitability of its end. After the dead cat, Tom Sawyer encounters grave robbers, witnesses a moonlit murder, attends, in a sublime evocation of the ultimate 12-year-old fantasy, his own funeral, narrowly escapes a horrible end with Becky in the cave, and then bears witness—with an astonishing surge of compassion, which is perhaps a greater treasure than the mass of gold coins he and Huck discover—to the true horror of the protracted, tortured death of his archenemy, Injun Joe, accidently imprisoned in the same cave. Both Charles and I sat riveted the morning I read Clemens's chilling expansion into oratory as he describes the dying villain's futile attempts to gather drinking water from a dripping stalactite. "That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified ... when Columbus sailed. ... It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history, and the twilight of tradition, and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion."
Some time later, Charles said: "You forget that all this stuff is happening to just one boy in a tiny little town. It's a big story."
Big. That's just what I thought, and at the end of our reading, I felt oddly triumphant, pleased that an American river, a small-town tale, could reach over time and space. Over continents and generations.
We Hear You!