What a hero Tom was become, now! He did not go skipping and prancing, but moved with a dignified swagger as became a pirate who felt that the public eye was on him. And indeed it was; he tried not to seem to see the looks or hear the remarks as he passed along, but they were food and drink to him. Smaller boys than himself flocked at his heels, as proud to be seen with him, and tolerated by him, as if he had been the drummer at the head of a procession or the elephant leading a menagerie into town. Boys of his own size pretended not to know he had been away at all; but they were consuming with envy, nevertheless. They would have given anything to have that swarthy, suntanned skin of his, and his glittering notoriety; and Tom would not have parted with either for a circus.
This scene, appearing roughly halfway into the novel, captures much of the essence of Mark Twain's 1876 novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. When I first read this book in a 7th grade Reading class, I was around the same age as its main protagonist. Although late 1980s America differed greatly from the 1840s Mississippi River societies that Twain explores here, there was a certain magic contained within its pages that appeal to me and others in my class. Who hadn't ever wished that they were the hero in a romantic story, where fame and glory, especially the glory, rained down upon their heads? For much of the novel, the humorous escapades that Tom Sawyer got into (often at the expense of his long-suffering Aunt Polly) dominate the action. Yet it is when Twain attempts to introduce an actual plot to his novel that the power of the early scenes falters.
Re-reading it twenty-four years after my initial read, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer reads as a picturesque novel spot welded to a much darker, less fun read. Although there is certainly adventure in the latter scenes involving Injun Joe and Tom and Huck Finn's quest to see where he had buried his treasure (the pursuit of justice being much further out of their imaginative juvenile minds), it pales in power and imagination to stories such as the famous fence white washing or the prank pulled upon the schoolmaster. The novel reads more as a fix-up of humorous vignettes lashed together to a plot that does not begin until a third of the way into the novel and which is not dominant until the final quarter. The Injun Joe plot arc feels out of sorts with the romps that the boys enjoys. While there are a few signs of the imaginative, almost Quixotic Tom's speculations in several of those scenes, the entire affair feels different from the rest of the story, as if it were an intruder upon a very different sort of story.
Part of this issue might lie in the two main characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Tom is one of those wild rogues whose spirit cannot be captured well in first person and while Twain was wise to avoid using Tom as a first-person narrator, his irrepressible character does not lend itself well to the more serious and frightening scenes in the novel. Huck, on the other hand, feels more like a sidenote, like the unwanted village pariah he is at the story's beginning, until he is called upon to support Tom during the whole hunt for Injun Joe (and his treasure). Perhaps it is merely me looking back upon the story while remembering his character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it seems that the final third of this novel might have been improved if the events had been described more directly by Huck Finn himself, as his character was always more practical and pragmatic than Tom's overly romantic idealism.
Despite the faltering of narrative power during the switch from youthful hijinks to two young boys trying to bring down a dangerous killer, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer still contains enough narrative force to make this an enjoyable read. It is, as some critics have said, a sort of hymn to boyish youth and exuberance. Tom and Huck are two of the most memorable fictional characters in American literature and although Tom never became quite the complex character that Huck later became, both are remembered for their shrewd commentaries on life at the edge of adolescence and how their dreams still spark sympathetic responses over a century later. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is far from Twain's most polished and well-executed novel, but despite its flaws, it is its very rough-hewn quality that lends itself well to periodic re-readings, even when the initial youth has become a marginally more mature adult.