A River Flows Through Us
After that, our morning appointments with Tom Sawyer became a ritual. I read aloud in the dank Northern Italian fog that rises off the Po River at the foot of our hill; on blazing clear days where the snowy line of the Alps gleams in the distance; in the rain, huddled soggily under an umbrella. As weeks passed and the oak and castor leaves turned brown and fell around us, and the school bus chugged past withering vineyards up the winding road, we made our leisurely way through the whitewashing, the pinch bug in church, Tom's staged death and glorious resurrection at his own funeral, the terror of Injun Joe, the ordeal with Becky Thatcher in the cave, the finding of the treasure. I recalled my own first reactions to the tale, which I read, like many other books, lying on a creaky glider on my sunporch in a black bourgeois Philadelphia suburb that spiritually was nearly as far from Samuel Clemens's Missouri as our aerie in the Italian Piedmont hills—farther, perhaps, because my parents regarded the book with the severity with which politically minded black people, in the fraught 1970s, regarded any literary classic by a white author whose prose lightly dealt in the word n*****. I myself, at 10 or 11, was completely unmoved by the occasional n*****, though the word had angered and embarrassed me in other books, skimming over it as I partook of a series of adventures that seemed less like fiction than like some part of me that I was just discovering, page by page. Like my other favorite books at the time, Tom Sawyer had an ecstatic familiarity, as if I had somehow grown the story myself; it seemed exactly calibrated to assuage my chronic boredom, to feed my dreams and obsessions.
And though I was a black girl growing up in a nest of civil rights activists, and Tom was a white boy at home with slavery, it was easy to imagine myself into his barefoot anarchic self, as it was easy to translate the Mississippi riverfront into the backyards, creeks, tree houses, and vacant lots of Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
My husband, who was born in Venice during the second World War and whose childhood experience of Americans was mainly limited to Gary Cooper movies and a standing maternal order to avoid GIs and their offers of chocolate, was pleased by our reading, and confessed that Tom Sawyer had been his favorite book as a boy. When Charles and I challenged him as to what he remembered, he listed everything precisely: whitewash; funeral; Becky; cave; treasure. He said it reminded him of days he'd spent on the lagoon with his friends, messing around in boats, fishing, swimming in canals (Venice was cleaner then). "I always thought of the Mississippi as looking something like the Giudecca," he added dreamily.
I could see that our son, too, had constructed his own mental Tom Sawyer landscape. He slid over any racism with the matter-of-fact attitude of an expatriate kid who has grown up being lectured ad nauseam on African-American history. From a few comments he made, I guessed that he envisioned the plot as unfolding in the woods in back of our house, a forest with a long history of military occupation, from Caesar's legions to Napoleon to Italian partisans, which is now frequently host to my son and his cronies, who have built a fort along a stream, where they spend time getting wet, hunting for Roman coins, smoking pilfered cigarettes, trying to kill small mammals, and plotting raids on other bands of boys.
And when we got to the desperate search for Tom and Becky lost in the cave, Charles compared it to a case we'd all been following in the Italian press a year earlier, in which the inhabitants of Gravina di Puglia were combing the caverns of the surrounding stony wilderness for a missing pair of 11- and 13-year-old boys.