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The following review appeared 12 September 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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One of the measures of Mark Twain's continuing popularity and cultural influence are his frequent appearances as a character in contemporary works of fiction. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Jane Austen have reason to be jealous. Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, and James Joyce are no-shows, and you can just forget all about Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, or T. S. Eliot.
Mark Twain's latest appearance is in Tim Champlin's most recent novel for young readers, based on his own experiences growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in a Missouri River town. Champlin's previous book, Fire Bell in the Night (2004) also used Twain as a character. In that book Twain is a grown man who shoots dead an assassin who was stalking Rudyard Kipling (was I wrong to be rooting for the stalker?). This time around we encounter a teen-age Sam Clemens on his home turf near Hannibal.
The story begins in 1950 in a Missouri River town with twelve-year-old Matt Lively, who, like every boy that age, wants summer to never end. He'd rather go adventuring with his friends. Early on he encounters a bully and fights, and from that point on Champlin artfully draws the reader inside the mind of a boy. Matt soon encounters a mysterious tramp named Thatcher who seems to know more about Matt than any mortal could possibly know. Matt visits a museum and sees an old steamboat wheel, and a short time later he and his friends are building and launching a boat of their own, smoking corn-cob pipes, and breaking windows in an old cabin in the woods. He even visits Hannibal and the Mark Twain Cave, and any young reader with half his wits about him will have figured out by now that Matt is being primed for an adventure. When he again encounters Thatcher, there is talk by the old tramp about going back in time to save a life and find some lost treasure, and it's now clear what kind of an adventure it will be.
But before that can happen Matt comes down with typhoid fever when he gets home from Hannibal, and a short time later seems to wake up as if from a dream. Until that moment his world was filled with buffalo nickels, street cars, Coke in bottles, Hardy Boy and Penrod books, Esterbrook fountain pens, Dick Tracy comics, catching lightning bugs, developing his own film, and playing kick-the-can (things that most young readers today will not recognize). The world in which he has awakened has none of those things, and it also has no aspirin, no telephones, no cameras, no baseball games, no airplanes, no bicycles, no radios, and no outboard motors. Matt misses the modern conveniences, but also notices that a world without trains, sirens, cars, buses, and highways is a very quiet world.
Matt has a few dollars in his pocket and his Brownie camera clipped to his belt, but no other traces of his former existence accompany him back in time except one of his friends. It does not take long before he meets Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper, and discovers that this new world in which he finds himself is Hannibal, Missouri in 1848. He spends a night on Jackson Island, and he meets Becky Thatcher at a circus, where there are three clowns performing. He also meets Jim who now works for pay for the Widow Douglas, and he meets Aunt Polly too. Along the way he swaps his paper money for some gold coins, and he snaps a few photos. Then comes news that Judge Thatcher's office has been robbed of the gold he was keeping for Tom and Huck, and it would appear the three clowns were the culprits. Next follows a steamboat trip to St. Louis where Matt and his friend meet young Sammy Clemens and make a new friend, but poor Sammy drowns while taking soundings in a small boat. After Sammy is pulled from the water Matt desperately performs CPR, but as life ebbs from Sammy's body, Tom and Huck slowly dematerialize and fade from view. Does Matt save his new friend, and do Tom and Huck come back to life? Maybe; maybe not. I reckon this reviewer ain't no spoiler.
Matt later recognizes three men trying to hitch a ride on the steamboat as the three clowns who robbed Judge Thatcher and hatches a plan to get back the gold. Will young Matt fulfill the prophecies of the old tramp who wanted him to save a life and recover a lost treasure? Maybe; maybe not. But when Matt next awakens he's back in the year 1950, and it all seems like a dream--except for the gold coins in his pocket and the photos he took with his camera.
Although the plot devices are familiar, Champlin moves smoothly
between cinemagraphic scenes and the minds of his characters, and weaves together
a convincing yarn that will hold the interest of most young readers. In the
process they'll get an idea of how it was to grow up in 1848 and in 1950,
and maybe even be provoked to read more about Tom and Huck, and that sopping
wet young lad, Sammy Clemens.