Monday, March 16, 2009

Troy: Me, Tom

That’s me, the kid on the left. Troy Howell.
Or rather, Tom.
Thomas Sawyer…sir.

It was a dress-up party for my birthday and I was ten, a very impressionable ten. An age, some psychologist’s claim, that is pivotal to one’s outlook or direction in life. Looking at myself now as an adult, I suppose I’ve supported that theory. I love fresh air and dappled sunlight, water, independence. I like adventure; I like cats. I don’t like pain-killer. I prefer a balance between sociability and reticence (I‘m involved, while on the edge). I appreciate wit, parody, satire. And one loyal friend is enough.

Just like Tom.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer wasn’t the only element that shaped me back then, but it was significant. I wasn’t Tom Sawyer just on my birthday, but all summer long, which lasted a year. Every summer lasted a year, when I was young. As Tom Sawyer, I purposely jabbed my toe so I could wrap it in bloodied cloth; used some of the blood to sign the Dark Oath I’d copied down; navigated the wide Mississippi (the street on which I lived) from a steamboat (my front porch); longed for a love like Becky Thatcher; and tried to smoke grass—the mowed kind—from a homemade corncob pipe without vomiting. But if I vomited, that was all right: Tom Sawyer did. Then when school began, I “played hooky” along with my loyal friend—the same friend under whose window I meowed at dawn, with whom I spent the rest of the morning reading comics. We were promptly caught and hauled to the principal’s office.

Reality had put an end to Tom Sawyer.
Or maybe not.

The more time you spend in a character’s shoes—or feet, with one toe wrapped—whether you’re a reader or writer (or an illustrator, for that matter), the deeper the experience, the more natural the representation. You can hear his voice, smell her hands. You can place your fingers on the character’s pulse and feel what makes it race or skip or freeze.

For the writer, it’s like taking memories that are yours and making them someone else's.
For the reader, it’s like taking those memories and making them your own.

I had been living Mark Twain’s delights.
When I met this boy covered in fine dust from the past, restless and straw-hatted, I met myself. I discovered desires that had been waiting to surface.

Character as mirror.

I fell in love with the great Mississippi, just like Tom. When I heard there was an actual river near where I lived, there in suburban southern California, I could hardly wait to see it. I did at last, after a long bike trek through the hills and hollows of an asphalt-and-stucco wilderness. There it lay, lagged really: a few-feet wide, few-inches deep, median strip of water with banks of concrete. The Los Angeles River.

Fiction was better than that. So were my dreams. (I now live in the country, close to nature, right where I’d yearned to be. I’m a mile or so from the Potomac; we have a pond….)

I pulled Tom Sawyer off the shelf the other day. It had been years since I’d opened it, and contrary to the impression I may be giving, it would not be one of my desert island picks. Twain is not even among my favorite authors. It was a book that touched me, not as a writer, but as a person. As a child, and hence, as an adult.

Since I’m writing middle grade material (my debut novel is middle grade), I thought I’d check to see how something that influenced me at age ten compares to what I’m doing for the same age group. I was relieved, if not surprised. The storytelling is direct, but much of the writing is mature:

“Then at once they reached and hovered upon the imminent verge of sleep—but an intruder came, now, that would not “down.” It was conscience. …. but conscience was not to be appeased by such thin plausibilities…. Then conscience granted a truce, and these curiously inconsistent pirates fell peacefully to sleep.”

Of course in context, in the setting and flow of action, this becomes less obscure for the young reader. Besides big words, there will always be overtones and meanings that drift beyond the understanding of a child. But just as a child can be affected by what is not said by a parent, what whispers in the parent’s heart or mind, so a child reader can be affected by these unseen currents. The child feels them. As the child grows, what is shifting below the surface gradually rises.

Back to my age-ten self: Oddly, when I picked up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s masterpiece, after having lived and breathed Tom Sawyer, I had difficulty relating to the first-person narration. I had difficulty separating the “I” of Huck from the I of me. Though personal in the telling, it was less personal than the third-person narrative of Huck’s counterpart. (I think today’s young reader is more sophisticated, but that’s another focus.) The writing in Huck Finn seemed more mature than that in Tom Sawyer, but it was its theme, its sweeping truth, that created this notion. This is also confirmation that what places a book is not so much “reading level” as it is point of view and scope of relevance across both time and culture. In Tom Sawyer, the narrative voice is obviously adult, in Huck Finn, it is simply that of its narrator. Compare the previous Tom Sawyer quote with this, the point of Huck’s moral crossroads between society’s (and, based on his clouded conception, God’s) view of slavery and his core nature:

“I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing … but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.”

That’s as complex as the narrative voice gets.

As a matter of course, once I was able to grasp Huckleberry as a character, I was able to grasp some of what he represented. I sensed that what he represented spread beyond the world of boyhood adventure and into the streets and spires of a large, looming, initial-capped, Society.

Character as window.
Character can also be concept.

When I turned twelve I found
Lord of the Flies, and not long afterward several neighborhood boys and I conducted a three-day war. Our neighborhood was chaotic with ditches at the time—the city was replacing water lines—that became symbols in my unconsciousness. I felt the upheaval, and the fever spread to my companions and rivals. During those delirious days, faces were painted, dirt clods flew, wooden clubs were carved and brandished, bruises appeared. One boy fell from a hastily constructed fort and landed in cacti. A boy I thought of as Piggy got struck in the forehead with a bamboo pole, which someone had thrown like a spear. The pole stayed suspended in that moment, an extension of our horror, and the boy collapsed. We washed his wound in the dog’s water bowl until his mother came, fearful, tearful, and angry, to take him to the nearest emergency room.

Again, reality ended the affair.
Again, maybe not.
Whatever William Golding’s intent, the climaxes of each—story and truth—collided within me. Until the blood ran, I‘d had no thought beyond merely playing out the parable. Though now not a pacifist—it depends on the cause—I loathe contention, strife, argument, fighting, war. Recognizing parental example as primary—my parents were peacemakers—I nevertheless see this adolescent episode as a threshold.

The heat waves of fiction always quivered along the surface of reality for me. Never mind whether the characters were flat or round or some other dimension: they were people; they were real. Though I was largely unaware of the process, they helped to reveal, define, introduce, change.

Besides giving me a ripping good time.

I recently loaned my Norman Rockwell edition of Tom Sawyer to my ten-year-old nephew. Before long, his parents were wondering why he and his little brother kept sneaking off into the woods; it was so unlike them.
They were pursing old adventures, and making them new.

The confluence of fiction and reality. Of an author’s dreams into those of the reader.

Memory as character …
Character as memory.

No answer.
No answer.

“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”

The old lady with the spectacles didn’t know it, but she was calling for me.


  1. I love this post! All of it. Character as mirror, window, concept, memory. And, of course, your hat! But what intrigues me most today is the notion of the "unseen currents" in fiction and how they affect the child reader.

    Thank you for posting.

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  2. I really, really enjoyed reading this. Thank you!
    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of HOPE..
    Ch. 1 is online!

  3. Thanks, Mary.

    By "unseen currents", I'm not at all advocating didacticism—that's a turn-off. Yet it is who we are in our hearts, I believe, that has the greatest influence. And who we are flows into everything we create. How does this affect the reader? There has to be some absorption, I'm thinking, to greater or lesser degrees ...

    Thanks, Beth.