Book Review:  Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

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An American children’s classic published in 1876 was not an obvious title to choose for our book group and as I read the introduction in the edition I’d picked up, my heart sank at the thought of reading what was heavily criticised from quite a lofty and literary perspective. My concern was misplaced, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and so did all of the group; as for the introduction, I think the critic was trying to be academic with what is essentially a ripping yarn.

Genuinely a children’s book which also appeals to adults (I spoke to a 10 year old who had recently read the same novel and thoroughly enjoyed it). So why does it work so well? After all, the cultural references are firmly embedded in American culture and that of more than a century ago. The answer is simply that this is a good adventure story about a mischievous boy, the sort we all either know or recognise elements of in ourselves.

Tom is an orphan living with his Aunt Polly on the banks of the Mississippi. He lives with Sid, a half brother who is nothing like Tom at all, but good in terms of obeying rules but dislikeable because he tells tales on Tom. Our group talked like school children at the mention of Sid, agreeing that nobody liked a tell tale. This is the magic of Tom Sawyer; it can take the adult reader back to a certain remembrance of childhood, full of fun and adventure. The themes of a hard adult reality running through these adventures stop it from being nostalgic.

Tom is a likeable character, and from the beginning had me laughing out loud as I read how he innocently amused himself and the congregation who were bored in church with an insect and a dog; this set the tone for the humorous escapades to continue. Tom also establishes himself as someone who although not brilliant in school and with a tendency to become bored quickly is clever in an entrepreneurial way. He knows how to get what he wants from Aunt Polly, how to get other boys to want to do what he wants them to, such as whitewash the fence, a task he’s been given in punishment. Tom knows the value of treasures such as a knob of andiron or a dead cat. Infact this currency and the laws of superstition make sense to Tom and his friends in a mystifying way that belongs to the world of childhood.

The amusement created by the fun and mischief has a counterbalance in the references to slavery and starvation that Tom’s friend Huckleberry Fin is closest to, and murder and revenge that the boys witness. The murder, seen when they creep into the cemetery at night with a dead cat. They plan to keep what they’ve seen a secret from fear of what Injun Joe, the murderer would do to them too. From murder the boys move on to more treasure hunting, playing pirates and Robin Hood and a little romance with the new girl at school. Friendship and freedom are explored in a time and place that has many of life’s injustices and where change is inevitable and accepted. It is at this point Twain finishes the tale, leaving the boys to grow into adulthood.

WEN reading group would recommend this to children and any adult who is still in touch with the little girl or boy inside them.

If you want to join us for our next meeting, we're reading Starter for Ten by David Nicholls and will meet on Wednesday 31st August at the Star & Anchor. You can find out more on our blog or by emailing Sarah at

Sara Judic


08 August 2011






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