Tuesday, March 7, 2017

My Granddaddy “was” Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain, published his famous book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876. The novel developed from reflecting on experiences he had growing up and those of a San Francisco fireman, the “real Tom Sawyer.”   Tom Sawyer, the non-fictional character, met Mark in the 1860s, who was then working as a free-lance reporter for San Francisco's Daily Morning Call.   Sawyer, a celebrated hero, was credited with rescuing ninety lives in a terrible fire that consumed a steamer ship off the coast of Baja.  The two spent many nights drinking, gambling, and telling stories about their boyhood adventures.  Mark was so inspired by Tom that he gave the man's name to his most famous boy character.  Other characters in the book: Aunt Polly, Sid, Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher, and Injun Joe were also inspired by friends and family.  Reports note that Mark, himself, spoke often about 'being' Tom Sawyer.  It may be that some of Tom's adventures were things young Twain would have liked to brag on at the moment in time when he actually experienced them, but smart enough to know that he had to stay mum or risk exposing himself and suffering consequences for his behavior.

My granddaddy, Kenneth Hartman, was born in 1921 and grew up along the James and Appomattox Rivers in Hopewell, Virginia.  After listening to his stories and adventures as a boy, I am quite sure that my granddaddy, Mark Twain, or likely the character Tom Sawyer, must have lived parallel lives.  At a recent visit with my granddaddy I asked him about his all-time favorite book and without thinking he immediately said The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Although the book was published forty-five years before he was born and probably not read by granddaddy until at least ten years later than that, he admired and related to the character's adventures.  I can certainly agree that my granddaddy “was Tom Sawyer,” and that most likely this character still lives vicariously today in the lives, if not minds, of many young boys.  Granddaddy tells of discovering a cache of whiskey “moonshine” in the woods while out picking blackberries one day.  He described the thrill of riding in a police car to disclose the find and having to duck down in the floorboard for safety, when nearing the contraband's hidden location.  As the youngest child in a large family, granddaddy often had to find ways to entertain himself while the others were busy doing “adult” things.  Living near the water, folks would think nothing about sharing their boats with each other, and granddaddy recalled many times he would hop in a neighbor’s boat to float downstream.  Permission may have been assumed, but I'm sure he took liberties by setting off on his own.  He admits there were things he discovered on those river outings that he would have loved to tell about, but had to keep those secrets for fear of getting into trouble.     Generally, boys are fearless and never consider danger when exploring outdoors, although his mother would have probably grounded him if she knew half of what he got into.  Another story reminded me of Tom Sawyer's successful attempt to pawn his whitewashing duties off on others.  Once when granddaddy was given the job of looking after a relative's baby, he desperately wanted to play a ball game with his friends.  He cleverly assigned his dog Roscoe to babysitting duties by instructing the dog to watch over the little one while he engaged in sport.  Roscoe was well-trained and guarded the crawling baby by barking and keeping it in place on a nearby quilt spread while the boys played.  Like Tom, Granddaddy had a carefree manner and charmed all the girls.  He was voted by his peers for senior superlatives in most all categories... most handsome, most friendly, most likely to succeed, class clown, wittiest, most popular, you name it Granddaddy was center stage. 

I can just imagine my Granddaddy, a lovable jokester, after recalling the adventures he lived as an adult.  When we visited our grandparents as children, I remember how self-sufficient granddaddy was... tending his garden, building anything he wanted in his wood shop, fishing, hunting, working on cars and trucks.  And I remember his sense of humor and how he always made us laugh.  I'm sure Mark Twain's stories played a big part in shaping my granddaddy's personality and I can picture him now curled up in his own hideaway cave reading about Tom and Huck's adventures.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer can be considered a literary classic, and at the same time stirs controversy when challenged for racist, casual insults made by its characters.  I experienced negative feelings about this book from parents of my students when I taught junior high language arts at a predominately black school.   What needs to be considered is that Twain wrote his story in vernacular to show how people talked during that time. Granddaddy points out that the language and dialog were authentic for the 1850s and he knew that, even when he first read the book.  I think like all history books there are things in this novel that we can learn about our past and relate to in our present.  As a girl, my childhood adventures might have included some daring escapades, but with this novel I can enjoy “living” Tom's experiences, or more realistically Becky's.  I know it's true, books can transport their readers with no restrictions, no limits, into other minds, other worlds, and many other adventures. 

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