The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain Friday, Jan 20 2012 

Despite taking four years of high school English and majoring in English in college, I had never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until recently. Having finally read this classic novel, I find myself categorizing it with several other “classics” I’ve read over the years: books whose significance I appreciate, but which I cannot say I actually enjoyed reading.

The novel is disjointed, and most of the subplots are just variations on the same basic storyline—Huck Finn gets involved in a sticky situation and manages to lie his way out of it, with varying degrees of difficulty. On the surface, the book felt more like an adventure story written for children than a serious novel worthy of the discussion and dissection it has received. I realize Mark Twain must have intended for the book to read somewhat haphazardly, but I found it tiresome after a very short time. I did not want reading this book to feel like a chore, but I was soon pushing myself to continue and finish it. While I liked the two central characters well enough, I found many aspects of the story irritating and dull, and I was relieved to be done with it.

However, while I cannot say that I liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I appreciate its significance to American literature, and its importance to understanding the era of American history in which it was written. This novel was one of the first in American literature to be written in the vernacular of the region where the action takes place, with a variety of dialects of Missouri and the Mississippi River region. Twain provides a vivid portrayal of the area where the novel takes place, one that teems with local color. It was one of the first novels to be so distinctively of a  particular region, and literary regionalism would become much more common in the decades after its publication. There is little doubt of the exact setting of Huckleberry Finn, and it is a story that could not take place anywhere else.

The main plot of the novel, which is much greater than the sum of its parts, revolves around runaway Huck Finn’s journey with a runaway slave named Jim and Huck’s efforts to help Jim keep his freedom.  As such, Huckleberry Finn has been thoroughly analyzed over the years for its treatment of race, racism, and slavery—and over one hundred years after its publication, there is still debate about what Twain intended to say about race, and whether the novel is prejudiced or not.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the mid-1880s, twenty years after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. However, Twain sets the novel in a time when slavery still existed. By the 1880s, it was clear that the end of slavery had not done enough to improve blacks’ lot in life; especially in areas where slavery had once been the norm, they were still subject to an extremely low standard of living and terrible treatment at the hands of whites. I believe in this book, Twain wanted to draw parallels between life for blacks in the antebellum South and their lives after the Civil War. Through the character of Jim, who wants to be freed from slavery and to be reunited with his family, Twain challenged his white readers to realize that blacks deserved the same freedom whites had, and that the abolition of slavery hadn’t been enough to give them that equality. Jim is a man with hopes, fears, and dreams, not a nonentity who is meant to live enslaved on someone else’s land. Slavery here represents black life after abolition, and the harsh reality that little had changed by the 1880s.

However, while many readers believe that Huckleberry Finn is a condemnation of slavery and racism, others find the depiction of Jim to be racist. Jim is portrayed as extremely superstitious and rather unintelligent. I believe it is entirely legitimate to raise questions about Twain’s purpose in characterizing Jim the way he did. The novel is heavy on satire, so was he satirizing the stereotypes of blacks that were so prevalent in 19th century America, exaggerating them to make readers realize how foolish such perceptions were? Or did Twain not consider blacks equal to whites, but still believed they deserved better lives? It is always essential to remember that many abolitionists, including Abraham Lincoln, did not necessarily believe blacks and whites were equal. It would not be surprising if similar attitudes were still common in the 1880s; some whites would believe blacks should be treated better, but still subscribe to common prejudices. While I will not pretend to have any insights into the mind of Mark Twain, I do believe that satire was likely the purpose of this depiction, especially considering the strong presence of satire in Twain’s body of work. However, a sound understanding of American history has to leave open the possibility that there may still be at some traces of racism in Twain’s work, even if they weren’t necessarily conscious ones.

Disheartening as it may be to think that such an important and innovative American writer may not have been progressive enough to move beyond racism completely, it is important to remember that considering the racial situation in the United States in this era, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was still a forward thinking book for its time. Slavery had been illegal for less than a quarter of a century, and Jim Crow laws and violence against blacks were still considered perfectly acceptable. For a writer like Twain to question the justice of such racial inequality was still a bold move. While negative stereotypes are a significant part of Jim’s character, he is also shown to be a loving, good-hearted individual who takes better care of Huck Finn than Huck’s own father does. While Huck constantly questions the legality and morality of helping Jim escape to freedom throughout the novel, Twain clearly regards the moment Huck decides that he would rather “go to hell” than return Jim to slavery as one of important and admirable growth in Huck’s character. While it is certainly understandable to question some aspects of Twain’s approach to race in this novel, I do think that, ultimately, it is a decidedly anti-racist work.

There is much more that could be said about Huckleberry Finn, but since my interest in the novel focuses primarily on its discussion of race issues and understanding the book in the context of American history, I would like to conclude this review with a discussion of one of the most controversial aspects of the novel: the frequent use of the N-word. The presence of that infamous word has lead to many difficulties in teaching the book in literature classes, especially, I would guess, at the high school level. There has even been talk of eliminating it from at least some editions of Huckleberry Finn. While I understand the offensiveness of that word, I oppose removing it from any unabridged edition that is not adapted for children. I do not believe in sanitizing history, and I think that in order for the book to have its full impact, readers need to understand how commonly the N-word was once used. It was a word that, back in the 1880s and for decades afterwards, even “nice” people used in everyday conversation without giving it any thought. To eliminate the term from this book, or any other from the era, is to deny how commonplace—and often how casual—racism was for a huge part of American history.

So, while I did not find The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn enjoyable, and do not consider it the Great American Novel (I do not believe in that concept anyway—more on that some other time), I believe it is indeed one of the more important works in American literature. Anyone interested in literature, or in U.S. history, should read it, whether in school or independently. It may feel a bit like taking your medicine, but even if you do not particularly like the book, you will probably still benefit from reading it.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: The Swedish and American Films Tuesday, Jan 10 2012 

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in 2009's Män som hatar kvinnor, Rooney Mara as Salander in 2011's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I have noticed that many reviews of the U.S. film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo questioned whether the film was necessary, considering there was already a very good Swedish adaptation of the book released in 2009. Even reviewers who enjoyed the movie raised this question, and some fans of the Swedish film were already criticizing the U.S. film before it was released, simply because the movie had been made. Because this argument was such a huge part of the discussion surrounding the new movie, I’d like to offer my own opinion.

One could argue that no film adaptation of a book is ever “necessary.” The story has already been told, and readers have already formed in their minds a picture of what the characters look like, how they say the things they say, what the setting is like, and so forth. However, I see nothing wrong with filmmakers offering their take on the story and bringing it to life on the screen—or with more than one filmmaker doing so. Many famous books have been adapted for the TV or the movies more than once without anyone arguing that the adaptations that came after the first one were “unnecessary.”

Considering that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international bestseller, it’s not at all surprising that more than one director would want to present their take on it, or that more than one studio would want to profit from the book’s success. It’s also not surprising that anyone would see an opportunity in making a movie of the book in English; such a movie would be more accessible to English-speaking audiences, especially in America, who may have difficulty enjoying a movie with subtitles and enjoy seeing (somewhat) familiar faces as the book’s characters. Necessary or not, the English-language version of the film isn’t a remake of the Swedish film, as some have called it, but another adaptation of the book. To say that it shouldn’t have been made or didn’t need to be made is, in my mind, rather narrow-minded and unfair.

Now, with that out of the way, I’ll let you know what I thought of the movies themselves.

I saw the U.S. film this past Friday, and while I’d say the book is better (as the book usually is in these cases), the movie was very good. I can’t say it was terribly exciting since I already knew what was going to happen, but I enjoyed the opportunity to see the story brought to life. The movie plays more like a bleak yet sophisticated mystery story rather than an edge-of-your-seat thriller—though, really, you could argue that the original book is both. I was especially impressed with Rooney Mara’s portrayal of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, which I’d say is the movie’s strongest point. She portrays Salander as a haunted and haunting figure; she remains fairly steady and calm throughout most of the film, yet it’s a sort of unsettling calm that lets you know there are things troubling her beneath the surface. Mara does a surprisingly good Swedish accent and totally inhabits the clothing and physical appearance of her character, despite how different it is from her own. I expect more than a few award nominations for her in the upcoming awards season, and maybe even a few wins.

I watched the Swedish movie, with the book’s original title of Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men Who Hate Women”) on Sunday. The differences between the two movies aren’t huge, but I thought that the Swedish movie felt like more of a tense thriller than the American one did. Again, the book is better, but I thought Män som hatar kvinnor maintained more of the original book’s feel than the American movie did.  Both are violent and graphic, but the Swedish movie is somewhat more so. While Rooney Mara’s Salander is thin and almost frail looking, Noomi Rapace has a stronger build and looks tougher in the role. Rapace’s take on Salander was also very good, but I found her more openly angry and volatile. This may have been a result of what the Swedish filmmakers chose to include about Salander in the movie more than anything else. Either way, Rapace is very haunting as Salander and has incredibly strong presence on screen. While the men portraying Mikael Blomkvist in both films do respectable jobs, when either Mara or Rapace is onscreen, that’s who you notice, and certainly who you’ll remember afterward.

Each of these films is a very good adaptation of a very good book. Language aside, I didn’t find them overwhelming different from one another. Each is bleak and troublingly violent, yet captivating, and features a very talented lead actress. In both cases, the filmmakers and editors did an excellent job of deciding what details, relationships and so forth were most important to included or emphasize, and which ones could be set aside somewhat or even excluded entirely. Nothing is done in either film to change the story or its point drastically. Necessary or not, these movies are both worth watching if you enjoyed Larsson’s novel.

Faith by Jennifer Haigh Wednesday, Jan 4 2012 

Although cases of priests molesting children had been reported before, it was not until 2002 that the scandal erupted in the Catholic Church across the United States and around the world. Those following the story were horrified to learn just how many children had been victimized, as well as the lengths some dioceses had gone to in order to hide what was happening. One of the epicenters of accusations and lawsuits was the Archdiocese of Boston, where Jennifer Haigh sets her most recent novel, Faith.

Lapsed Catholic Sheila McGann, a Boston native now living in Philadelphia, is shocked to learn around Easter 2002 that her older half brother, Father Arthur Breen, has been accused of molesting an 8-year-old boy. Her devout Irish Catholic mother is in denial and refuses to discuss the scandal, while her younger brother, Mike, clearly believes Art is guilty. Troubled as she is that Mike would believe such a thing of his own brother, Sheila herself isn’t sure what to believe when Art remains elusive about his own innocence or guilt and won’t stand up for himself. The novel weaves through the history of the Breen/McGann family, as well as the life of the young mother accusing Art of hurting her son. As these two stories become more and more intertwined, complicated relationships and devastating secrets come to the surface.

Jennifer Haigh explores the Church’s abuse scandal from a perspective that is rarely discussed: how accusations as serious as sexual abuse affect the accused’s family.  It is an important perspective to remember; whether such allegations are true or not, they can lead to humiliation, confusion, and paranoia for the family and friends of someone accused of molesting a child, or of any crime. However, while I applaud Haigh’s efforts to show that there are many types of potential victims in a situation such as this, I found myself wondering as I read Faith if she might have glossed over the devastation of sexual abuse to those who have experienced it. While this fear was alleviated somewhat as I continued the book, I think it is very important for anyone reading Faith to remember that its viewpoint is limited, and that the children hurt most by this scandal must not be forgotten among other complications.

Perspective aside, Faith has its merits and its drawbacks. The novel is surprisingly suspenseful, and it offers no easy answers about family, loyalty, the priesthood, or even about the abuse scandal itself. The characters are, for the most part, believable, especially in how they are conflicted about their families and the changes going on in their lives. Unfortunately, some elements of the plot stretched my suspension of disbelief, especially when it came to the interaction between Art’s family and that of his alleged victim. While it made for some interesting drama, I found it a bit difficult to believe that two such families would interact that much. I also thought there were some stories within the novel, especially about Sheila, that were only minimally connected to the main plot and ended up being more distracting than enlightening.

Faith is not the first novel to be written about the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Overall, I would say that it’s a good read, but not a great one.  It is a sad and thought provoking novel, but Haigh takes a few too many detours that simply aren’t necessary, making the book a little messy at times. As mentioned before, the perspective is an interesting one that deserves attention, but it can only go so far in shedding some light on one of the more troubling news stories of the past decade. It’s certainly a worthwhile read regardless of one’s religious background, but if a definitive novel about the scandal is ever determined, I highly doubt it will be this one.