Book Review Archives

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: The Big Read: Alabama Edition

By: Mark Twain; Foreword by Alan Gribben
Reviewed by: Elaine Hughes
NewSouth Books, 2009
$12.95, Paper; $21.95, Hardcover

Few Americans will admit to not having read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a classic tale of childhood by Mark Twain, literary icon. And though decades may have passed since readers discovered Twain’s characters, they still can recall vividly the memorable fence-whitewashing scene, the witnessing of a murder by Tom and his friend Huck, the fear of Tom and Becky Thatcher while lost in the cave where the murderer is hiding. Published in 1876, Twain’s depiction of the adventures of childhood—both fantasy and real-life—has become much more than “a book for boys, pure & simple,” as he had planned. The story has survived as a tribute to the innocence of childhood, as a reflection on the pains of growing up, as a recollection of the rural and small-town life of a now-distant past. The Big Read: Alabama Edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer invites all Alabamians, young and old, to rediscover and to revisit this treasure of American literature.

Published by NewSouth Books, this edition is the text chosen for the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program, and citizens across Alabama will be participating by reading and discussing Twain’s novel during 2010, the centenary of his death. This special Big Read: Alabama Edition uses the unabridged text of the 1876 first American edition. Included are annotations by Twain scholar Lucy Rollin and a foreword by noted Twain scholar Alan Gribben, English faculty member at Auburn University at Montgomery. Rollin’s annotations not only provide footnotes explaining words and references unknown to today’s readers—such as the “pantalettes” worn by Becky Thatcher in Tom’s first sighting of her in the garden: “a lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long-tails, white summer frock and embroidered pantalettes”—but they also provide insight into Twain’s writing of the work: his use of brackets and parentheses to set off his authorial comments and his revisions of the manuscript in progress, i.e., to remove Huck’s pap from the murder scene.

Gribben’s excellent foreword provides the historical and biographical context of the novel and its significance in Twain’s career and its place in literary history. As Gribben notes, though already successful in “his collections of comic sketches and travel narratives,” Twain’s “first solo venture as a novelist” produced Tom Sawyer. Gribben points out that during this time period, the literary vogue was “Boy Books.” Twain began to draw upon the richness of his autobiographical memories and his experiences growing up along a great river and during the frontier days of America for his writing.

Twain’s novel endures today because of his inimitable style—his narrative voice, his choice of the “right” word, his humor. Gribben notes that Twain’s creative genius distinguishes this novel as something more than a “sweetly innocent book” about childhood and makes it one that strikes a chord in Americans who read it—as a reminder of their shared history and their less complicated lives in an earlier time.

In addition, the Big Read: Alabama Edition includes the NEA Reader’s Guide, which provides background material on the writing of the novel, biographical material on Twain, brief descriptions of other works by Twain, discussion questions for studying the novel, and a listing of sources on Twain and his writing.

Twain wrote in his Preface to Tom Sawyer in 1876: "Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in. "

That allure remains today, and the Big Read: Alabama Edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ensures that readers will have an opportunity once again to be entertained, and enthralled, by the writing of Mark Twain. Feb 2010

Elaine Hughes, recipient of the 2007 Eugene Current-Garcia Award for Distinction in Literary Scholarship, is recently retired from the University of Montevallo, where she taught English for thirty-five years.