Hannibal, Mo., Without the Whitewash
Friday, January 18, 2008
The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher
By Lenore Hart
St. Martin's. 371 pp. $24.95
The making of new stories out of old characters from classic works has become quite the cottage industry. (Poor Jane Austen, for instance, and her cast of characters have been used and abused as brutally as a cheap motel washcloth.) Lenore Hart's new novel, "Becky," is the story of what might have happened to Becky Thatcher, Tom Sawyer's friend, that pretty little icon, daughter of the local judge.
For those who may not remember "Tom Sawyer" intimately, Tom is a scruffy kid who lives with his kind Aunt Polly and his pillish half-brother Sid, and hangs out with Huck Finn, son of the town drunk. Tom's nemesis is Injun Joe. Later, in Mark Twain's more famous sequel, Huck and his friend, the escaped slave named Jim, take a fabled trip on a raft down the Mississippi.
If you loved these books, either as a child or as a grown-up, "Becky" will make you itch. The thing to do, I guess, is try to forget those early tales entirely and take this effort for what it is.
The plot of "Becky" begins in the last year of the Civil War. Becky is married to Sid, and they have two children. Sid, Becky tells us, is in many ways a far better human being than Tom ever was. But Becky remembers very well the first time she met Tom and that "his eyes were greeny-gold, slightly slanted like a cat's," which puts Tom out of the realm of children's literature and makes him the hero of a romance novel. (No wonder, then, that Tom becomes the father of Becky's first child.) In Becky's story, Huck Finn hated her with a passion because he wanted Tom's attention all to himself. Now, in 1864, Jim, that former slave, turns up again, having learned how to speak near-standard English. He tells Becky of having been conscripted by a militia: "Some raggedy men bent on mischief. But Tom's bunch was up near Palmyra then, and overtook us on the road. They stopped and set me free. . . . After the war finish, I head up north. You know somebody got to be responsible for these wild boys."
It turns out Huck Finn has been in Panama and has inexplicably returned to Hannibal, where he stalks Becky and is prone to "sour moods," acting "hard and cold and hateful." We discover that Tom Sawyer's parents were massacred by Indians, and that Injun Joe was a decent, compassionate man sorely in need of understanding. And that "little Sam Clemens" was always just a creepy hanger-on, walking around with his "thumb corked in his mouth."
It's bad enough to brutalize characters you've stolen from someone else, but then to badmouth the original author does seem beyond the pale. But let's look at the bright side: Becky, in her memory, climbed out of her window every night and hung out with the guys; she was there in the graveyard when the fateful crime involving Injun Joe was committed; she turns out, as an adult, to be a suffragist.
And if the reader can forget what Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn stand for in American literature, "Becky" can be seen as an informative history lesson about the complexities of the Civil War as it occurred in Missouri. It was a slave state that refused to secede from the Union but was invaded by Union soldiers nonetheless and preyed upon by freelance militias of every stamp. After the war, when Becky and Sid decide to move to Virginia City, Nev. (where they see the seedy but up-and-coming, self-styled "Mark Twain"), the author paints a convincing picture of a city in the midst of a silver-mining boom.
Hart also uses some of Twain's literary conceits to good effect. There are myriad disguises, deceits, jokes, men pretending to be women, women pretending to be men, ingenious projects, local color -- all that. It's just the characters who suffer here, but if you harden your reader's heart sufficiently, you may be able to stomach it.