My first memory of desperately wanting an object happened when I was four.
My mother and I were in the dime store of our back-bayou town of Houma, La. There, on a rack with other grown-up books, was a copy of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. I wanted it. No, way more than wanted it. I was sure I couldn’t live without it.
Although I was reading by that age, I didn’t have to sound out the title words, “T..t..t..O..o..o..M..,” because I instantly recognized the picture on the dust jacket. It was Tom, watching the other kids he’d tricked into whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. Many nights, snuggled in bed, my mother had told my brother and me stories from Tom Sawyer. I knew all about Becky, and the bat cave, and Huck Finn.
And I needed with all my being to possess that book.
“No, Sheila, you can’t have it. It’s too hard for you. You can’t read it,” Mama insisted.
“I want it!” I wailed. “I can read it! It says ‘Tom Sawyer’! I need it!”
And then, when Mama stood firm (probably because we really couldn’t afford to buy me a hardback book), I did what I had to do. I threw myself down on the wood floor and pounded my head over and over into the gritty planks. I was going to have the book or kill myself.
I got the book. I also got punished when we returned home, and I never staged another tantrum. And Mama was right, of course. I couldn’t read it. But I treasured that book, and it was the first novel I ever read.
I was reminded of all this yesterday at the Annapolis Book Festival,
where I attended a panel discussion of Mark Twain by three authors who are Twain experts: Robert Hirst, official curator of The Mark Twain Project and Papers at U.C. Berkeley, Michael Shelden, author of Mark Twain: Man in White, about Twain’s final years, and Jerome Loving, author of Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens.
This Wednesday is the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death, so we’ll probably be hearing lots about him in the coming months.
Listening to the panelists talk about Twain, I remembered all my favorite Twain books. Although I never stop loving Tom Sawyer, the fiction was never as interesting to me as Twain’s nonfiction, in which he paints pictures of 19th century American life – often hilariously. I’m planning to re-read several books now. Here are my absolute favorites:
1) The Innocents Abroad. In 1867, Twain accompanied a group of tourists on a steamship voyage in the Mediterranean. He reports of the fatuousness of American tourists (wow, even back then!). Among other things, they all bring chisels to the Acropolis to carve off a bit to take back home.
2) Life on the Mississippi. Samuel Clemens was a steamboat pilot before he made his living writing. This book describes how he learned the river and how to navigate it before the Civil War. Twain gives a brief history of the river, and also returns years later to take a trip from St. Louis down to New Orleans.