Much like my fellow reviewer, Bernard (Chs. IX-XII), one of my earliest encounters with Tom Sawyer was in a class play. In 9th grade, I got to play Injun Joe in a stage adaptation written by my school’s librarian.
Of course, growing up in the Great Plains, there was some worry about offending the Native Americans in our community so the character got renamed “Cajun Joe” (I guess no one was worried about offending any French-Canadian exiles from Louisiana). Aside from awakening in me a passion for the theatre, this was the first time I had read the unabridged novel. Previously, I’d only read a couple of children’s adaptations.
I was astounded by the richness of it! It’s been noted that one of the great strengths of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that Twain wrote it for both children and adults. Being a freshman in high school, I was at last at an age to appreciate the novel in a whole new way. In particular, I found that Injun Joe was a far more frightening character than the sanitized versions I’d been presented with as a child.
Which makes Tom’s testimony at Muff Potter’s murder trial all the more heroic in my eyes. The children in the world of Tom Sawyer are pretty fearless — nowadays, many children would be too afraid to run away, explore, and camp out on a deserted island for days on end the way Tom, Huck, and their friends do — and so the fear of Injun Joe that kept Tom and Huck silent for so long must have been frightening indeed! But the deep-down goodness of Tom’s heart, as well as the lessons about right and wrong that Aunt Polly taught him, show themselves in the nick of time and Tom saves the life of an innocent man.
We get ahead of ourselves! Tom still has a couple chapters of being an impish and charming rascal before the murder trial begins...
It’s Examination Day at school! In his zeal to “make a good showing,” the schoolmaster becomes even more severe in dispensing discipline in the days leading up to the exams — “[h]is rod and his ferule were seldom idle now.” The boys come up with a plan to exact revenge and enroll the sign-painter’s boy in their scheme. The school is decorated for the examinations, which take place in the evening in front of an audience of family members. Students are called to a raised platform at the front of the room, where the schoolmaster sits “enthroned,” and perform recitations and exercises to show what they’ve learned during the last term. Twain’s descriptions of these recitations are delightfully skewering! Let’s be honest — this chapter has nothing to do with developing plot or character; it’s an opportunity for Twain to let loose with his commentary on the educational traditions of small-town rural America.
In the end, the boy’s scheme against the schoolmaster is realized to great success. “The boys were avenged. Vacation had come.”
Tom is on vacation. He joins the Cadets of Temperance — simply because he likes their regalia — and vows to abstain from smoking, chewing, and profanity (all things in which he typically delights!) This is where Twain makes one of his most pithy and famous observations on human nature — “to promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing.” Tom hangs in there for the opportunity to wear his red sash at the funeral of Judge Frazer. When the judge is pronounced on the mend, Tom quits the order...and that night the judge relapses and dies. Tom resolves that he will “never trust a man like that again.”
Once out of the Cadets, Tom loses his desire to drink and swear, simply because now he can. Tom tries to keep a diary but nothing happens (for 3 days); the boys in town get up a band (for 2 days); the U.S. Senator who shows up for the Fourth of July celebrations proves a disappointment (he was not 25 feet high); and they play circus (for 3 days). Nevertheless, Tom still finds himself a bit bored, and with Becky gone to her home in Constantinople, “there was no bright side to life anywhere.”
Then Tom gets the measles and for two long weeks he’s dead to the world. When he’s once again able to get out of bed, he finds that there was a “revival” in town and everyone has “got religion.” He gets depressed at the other boys’ unwillingness to engage in their usual shenanigans (even Huck is quoting Scripture!) and heads back to his bed, feeling alone. That night there’s a terrible storm which Tom believes is directed at him, for “he had taxed the forbearance of the powers above to the extremity of endurance.” Tom relapses with measles and is bedridden for three more weeks; when he regains his health, the boys of the town are back to normal.
At last, the much anticipated murder trial of Muff Potter begins and the whole town turns out to watch. Tom and Huck are made more and more nervous by it and reaffirm with each other that “couldn't anybody get you to tell.” They also admit that they both feel sorry for poor ol’ Muff, a man who, in Huck’s estimation, “ain't no account; but then he hain't ever done anything to hurt anybody.” They visit Muff Potter in jail and give him some tobacco and matches, as they have many times before, and his gratitude toward them makes them both feel pretty cowardly and treacherous for keeping mum about what they know.
After a few days of trying to avoid the courthouse — but unable to stop himself from loitering outside it — Tom stays out late one night and comes home “in a tremendous state of excitement.” (Foreshadowing!) The next day, as Potter’s counsel declines to question witness after witness, it seems to all a forgone conclusion that he’ll be found guilty and is going to be hanged. Then Potter’s counsel calls to the stand — Tom Sawyer! Tom takes the stand and fingers Injun Joe as the real murderer of Doc Robinson. Injun Joe jumps out a window to avoid capture and is gone.
Tom is once again the hero of the town — “the pet of the old, the envy of the young.” Muff Potter, too, is treated as well by the townsfolk now as they had abused him before. Tom is glad that he spoke up, but at night his fear of reprisal from Injun Joe is strong. There’s no sign or sight of the “half-breed” — even the detective who comes up from St. Louis fails to uncover his whereabouts. He finds a “clew” but that’s all. Time drifts on, and Tom’s apprehension lifts slightly with each passing day.
In these chapters, Twain takes the opportunity to comment on many aspects of small-town American culture in his day — education, religion, the fickleness of people, detectives. Comparing the world he describes in the novel to American culture in the 21st century, do you think Twain’s comments still apply? What are some examples of things in the modern world that he might find equally worthy of his famous acerbic judgment?
About the Author
John Keogh is the Web & Multimedia Specialist in Public Affairs. He grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and is a registered member of the Brothertown Indian Nation (no joke!)