A hospitable river: Huckleberry Finn’s Mississippi adventures

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Summer holiday. What better time to read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, set in that sweltering hot place, the American south. Huckleberry Finn is a 14-year old boy who runs away from his (really scary) drunken dad and takes along Jim, a runaway slave who wants to cross the border to the northern states to gain freedom. Their journey is full of surprising, strange and horrific encounters with people of all walks of life—some hospitable, others indifferent, unreliable, or downright hostile—most of them unique characters who have just one thing in common: they fall for Huck’s fanciful stories about how he and Jim happened turned up in this particular spot. The whole journey along the majestic Mississippi is like life itself—it’s a wheel of fortune where you’re just forced to go with the flow, even though you think you are at the helm. For Huck and Jim it’s a refugee’s life in the shadows: paddling their raft at night, hiding in the daytime, to move on and keep out of sight.

But life is a lark. And if running away is hard, taking a break can be fun. Huck and Jim are experts at making the most of things—and masters at being free. “Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” Resting at that grand old host, the Mississippi river, they’re just glad to be alive.

I’m reading this and think: Wouldn’t it be great just to BE Huck on an early summer morning—welcoming the day at the Mississipi river? No need to book that plane and fly out there. Just read it. Read it slowly and join the boy and the slave, there in 1885.

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“Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid day-times; soon as night was most gone, we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a tow-head; and then cut young cotton-woods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound, anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side—you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting, ever so far away—trading scows, and such things, and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you can make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a wood-yard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the wood and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars, and such, and they do get pretty rank, and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!”

[Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Great Britain, 1996]

Huckleberry Finn–you’re hankering to wander again, to go as far as a body can”

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