The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
In one of the most famous scenes in American literature, Tom Sawyer is condemned to whitewashing the front fence as a Saturday morning punishment inflicted by Aunt Polly. Taking stock of his pocket treasures, he realizes he cannot buy his way out. Desperate for freedom, he has a sudden flash of inspiration. Combining an acute understanding of human nature with masterful acting skills, he soon finds himself seated on a barrel in the shade eating an apple, his first booty, while his friend Ben paints away. Tom “planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material…” By the end of the afternoon, Tom has amassed a fortune (including a dead rat and a string, twelve marbles, a one-eyed kitten, and four pieces of orange-peel.) And the fence has been whitewashed thrice over.
There is a reason that classics are classics. The delight in discovering Mark Twain’s droll wit, pitch-perfect ear for colloquial speech, acerbic social commentary, and deft portrayal of boyhood along the Mississippi River is reason enough to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. There is also the imperative of reading a common literary canon. Families are bound by shared memories, and cultures are bound by a common vocabulary of images. Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Tom Sawyer should be a familiar icon to all. Every child can benefit by Tom’s epiphany that Saturday morning. “He had discovered a great law of human action – without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”
Among literary characters, Tom is one of the greats. He is a good-natured adventurous romantic who combines ingenuity, courage, humor, honor, and a strong penchant for mischief. Consider the following. Spurned by Becky Thatcher, Tom takes to the Mississippi River where he leads a pirate’s life on Jackson Island with Huck Finn and Joe Harper. The boys watch the townsfolk search the river for their drowned bodies. That night, Tom slips away, thinking to leave a note for his Aunt Polly to ease her anguish. Overhearing plans for the impending memorial service, he desists, and the three runaways make their triumphant return at their own funeral. Tom is a prankster, but a lovable one, and the feelings between the boy and his guardian aunt run deep.
There is more. For anyone who gets hooked on Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the incomparable sequel. The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can follow.
The illustrations above are by an unknown artist from the Association of Illustrators, True Williams – the wonderfully-named illustrator for the original edition, and Richard Rogers.