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Life on a Raft on a River

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Ferdinand Richardt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Huck’s comment that it’s lovely to live on a raft described a river experience that was not typical of the river depicted here in an 1858 painting by Ferdinand Richardt.

Hello, Radio Readers! I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City KS. We’ve been talking about Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This 19th century American novel is the second in our Fall Book Read: “Rivers and Meandering Meanings.” Set loosely before the Civil War, the central characters are Huckleberry Finn, an11-yr old orphan from what we might call the wrong side of the tracks, and a 30-something fugitive slave. Together, Huck and Jim attempt to flee the laws and mores that restrain them by rafting the Mississippi River.

Hello, Radio Readers! I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City KS. We’ve been talking about Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This 19th century American novel is the second in our Fall Book Read: “Rivers and Meandering Meanings.” Set loosely before the Civil War, the central characters are Huckleberry Finn, an11-yr old orphan from what we might call the wrong side of the tracks, and a 30-something fugitive slave. Together, Huck and Jim attempt to flee the laws and mores that restrain them by rafting the Mississippi River.

Do you wonder what Twain would have us think of Huck and Jim? I mean, the Mississippi is among the four greatest rivers of the world. It’s over 2300 miles long –Huck and Jim end up traveling about a third of it. And while most of us walk faster than its typical surface flow of about 1½ miles an hour—it is called a lazy river for a reason—it’s typically about 2 miles wide and heavily trafficked. For some local perspective, the distance from the Highway 50 north bypass to Wyatt Earp Blvd in Dodge City is about the same distance. So, who but the most desperate or the least thoughtful—could think hopping on a raft is a good way to travel the Mississippi?

Huck and Jim’s thought is to head to a port in Illinois to a tributary of the Mississippi and then raft north. Missing it, they opt not to turn back but rather to go with the flow south to St Louis, floating along between Missouri and Illinois, Arkansas and Tennessee. Alone, Huck and Finn raft at night to avoid detection. Huck tells us that he and Jim would get the raft to the middle of the river and then “let her float wherever the current wanted her to” and then they “dangled [their] legs in the water and talked about all kinds of things.” They often were the only ones on the river, from offshore a few soft sounds of a fiddle or a song, a few cabin lights, and then, into the night, only the song of frogs and the night sky, “speckled with stars.” Huck says, “It’s lovely to live on a raft.”

Lovely tranquil passages like these are surprisingly rare within the novel. These lovely passages offer strong contrasts to the many, many pages that describe the violent lives along the river—vigilantes who shoot drunks, families who’d rather kill each other than intermarry, citizens who pour hot tar on petty criminals, and kindly farmers who’ll starve a fugitive hogtied in a shed. To Huck, these series of events aren’t shameful, painful, or wrong. Instead, he reports them as adventures, that is, exhilarating forays into unfamiliar territories. He recounts without reflection or attempts to find meaning or purpose for his life or for Jim’s.

But then, Huck Finn doesn’t really come across as a thinking, self-reflective kind of person, does he? One take-away from this novel is that as Huck and Jim float and drift on a vast slow-moving river, brushing against danger, being conned and played, and held captive, we readers might awaken to the lack of agency these characters possess. They don’t choose. They don’t operate from any sense of personal authority or self-awareness; they do consistently react, mostly to danger and threat, by fleeing, or floating off , and in the geography of the novel, floating in a direction that leads towards even greater danger.

For HPPR Radio Readers, I’m Jane Holwerda, hoping each of us greater agency and moral imperative than has Huck Finn.

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Fall 2021: RIVERS meandering meaning2021 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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