One Book project chooses 'Huckleberry Finn' for '04

Some call it the great American novel. Others, objecting to language, denounce it as racist and seek to eliminate it from schools. Funny, poetic, poignant, full of beauty and ugliness, Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the story ...

Some call it the great American novel. Others, objecting to language, denounce it as racist and seek to eliminate it from schools. Funny, poetic, poignant, full of beauty and ugliness, Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the story of a runaway boy and a runaway slave heading down the Mississippi River on a raft, is a novel that still will not fail to get any lover of literature talking.

Which perhaps makes it the ideal choice for the third annual One Book event sponsored by the Duluth Library Foundation and supported by area libraries, schools and bookstores.

Wendy Wennberg, at the Duluth Public Library, notes that even after a century, it's still one of the most widely read books in America and still one of the most widely taught novels in American schools.

And the library's first event in the area-wide discussion, Monday at 7 p.m. in the library's Green Room, gets right to the point. It's a lecture by Dr. Tom Zelman, an English professor at the College of St. Scholastica, asking if "Huck" is the American novel.

Is he saying yes?


"I am, but I'm saying this is not entirely a good thing," Zelman said during a phone interview last week.

He has been teaching the novel since before he came to St. Scholastica and notes that it highlights both what is most admirable and what is most regrettable about the United States, "then and now."

Elements of the book are beautifully written, he says. And more than that, the relationship between Huck and Jim, the slave, is the novel's most valuable contribution.

"His discovery that Jim is not just a comical figure, a fun something--less-than-human, but a generous, warm, concerned man capable of the full gamut of emotions -- that's really terrific," Zelman said.

He sees Huck -- abused and utterly without moral guidance but still intuitively finding the right choices -- to be something of a parable about a maturing America. In the novel's most poignant scene, after Jim has been captured, Huck decides to try to free his friend, even though he believes it will damn his soul to hell.

"Instinctively, he seems to go toward the right moves on his way toward adulthood," Zelman said. "... And there's something very commendable about that."

So what's not to like?

Unlike many critics, Zelman is not caught up on the n-word. In fact, he says the language is necessary to tell the story.


"If you want to recreate the harshness of slavery," he said, "the language should not reflect today's multicultural tolerance."

Rather, it's the final third that he says makes the novel "maddening." Huck's friend Tom Sawyer shows up and hatches a fanciful plan to rescue Jim, a plan that shows no concern whatsoever for Jim's safety or well-being. It's immature and cruel, Zelman said. "I just wonder, are we supposed to be laughing at this? Is this still funny?"

He suggests Twain was a successful storyteller but perhaps a failed novelist. But that may be the charitable interpretation. As Zelman teaches his students, their job as readers is to "grant maximum authorial deliberation" -- to assume that whatever you read is what the author planned.

"It seems almost like a dialectic going through Twain's mind," he said. "'What, exactly, am I going to do with Jim?'"

He sees parallels with modern America, still full of promise and newness and potential for growth and conscience, but still willing to "let itself be misled by less enlightened elements."

A community conversation

Wennberg says that as in the past two years -- which focused on Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie" -- the selection of "Huck" was made in consultation with schools, librarians and book stores.

But this process was different. As in the past, a number of choices were given, in consultation with what's being taught in school curricula and what the recommendations of participants from previous years were. But after the committee had narrowed down its list to five finalists, the committee couldn't agree on one.


That's when the committee noted Grand Excursion 2004 -- a re-enactment of an 1854 steamboat excursion up the Mississippi from the Quad Cities in Louisiana to St. Paul.

With the regional connection to the Mississippi and the book itself, it seemed like a good fit. To cement the tie-in, the Duluth Library Foundation is giving away a pair of tickets for a lunch cruise in St. Paul as part of the Grand Excursion event to some lucky person who attends one of the event's listed in the resource guide, including Zelman's talk Monday.

Wennberg said the organizers are learning from past experience, but she's optimistic. She says some people are trying to attend all the events and talking amongst families and book clubs.

The community conversation seems to happen around these events. "It is working out, and that is the goal of the project," she said.

The number of events has been scaled back a little, with an emphasis on quality rather than quantity.

As in past years, one important element is the resource guide put together by the committee. It contains a biography of Twain, an overview of his work, related Web sites, discussion questions and books on the same themes more suitable for younger readers.

It also has a complete list of the events being held at the library, schools and area bookstores.

One, at the library on April 13, addresses the legal questions surrounding the controversial book.


Several book groups are opening their ranks for those wishing to discuss "Huck."

Writer Ron Severs, who took a solo kayak trip the entire length of the river, will appear and discuss his book, and Lake Superior Writers will host several local writers discussing the theme of "traveling to find ourselves."

The last event on the docket comes April 27, when local actor Kevin Walsh will adopt the Twain persona and tell stories, accompanied by music from members of the Arrowhead Chorale.

Wennberg said circulation of the book is already picking up at the Duluth Public Library, where 100 copies of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and related materials are available.

The resource guide is available at the library, at many area bookstores and online at the library's Web site, .

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