Mark Twain in a Venetian gondola
Illustration: Jeffrey Smith
Her worldly 12-year-old wasn't the sort to read Tom Sawyer. Or was he? So his mother pulled a fast one. Sneaky girl! The author forms a classic bond with her boy.
It was with a certain timidity that I began reading Tom Sawyer to my son, Charles. We live in Italy, and Charles at 12, with a smudge of nascent mustache, is one of those jaded bicultural kids now produced in such quantities by this shrinking planet: Half Italian on his father's side, half African-American on mine, he spends vacations in the States or traveling in Asia and Africa on a passport that has more stamps than Grand Theft Auto has cheats. He's a passionate reader, both in Italian and English, but compared to the sensational premises of the books he suddenly started devouring after James and the Giant Peach, Tom Sawyer seemed parochial, overly homespun, just plain small. Yet it seemed to me that a childhood without this book had a dead spot in it. I certainly didn't want him discovering it on a reading list for a college course entitled something like "Myth and Platonic Motif in Mark Twain."

So I resorted to trickery. One September morning, as we waited down at the end of our driveway for the bus from the International School to appear down the road, I pulled Tom Sawyer out of my pocket and said that though he was far too old to be read to, I needed practice for an upcoming book tour. As Charles gave me a cut-the-crap look, I added craftily that it would be useful in his often-described future career as dictator of the Western Hemisphere (12 is a power-hungry age), as it was an American classic, a key to the hearts and minds of future subjects. Then I quickly started reading, not at the beginning, not even at the whitewashing episode, but at a point that instantly chimed with our immediate situation. "Monday morning found Tom Sawyer miserable. Monday morning always found him so—because it began another week's slow suffering in school."

My son, his eyes still clogged with sleep, sat hunched on his backpack on the ledge by the driveway, fiddling with a castor bean pod, the dog gnawing the toe of his running shoes, and listened to Tom's encounter with Huck Finn on the way to school. "Say—what is dead cats good for, Huck?" "Good for? Cure warts with."

This is the kind of conversation that, in spite of contemporary distractions posed by Medal of Honor, YouTube, Borat, and André 3000, still sings to the youthful soul. I saw a glint in Charles's eye. "Mark the page," he commanded, as the bus pulled up and he slouched out of the gate. And the next morning he asked me to start all over again, at the beginning.

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.

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.


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