The Ballad of Huck & Miguel. By Tim DeRoche. Illustrated by Daniel Gonzalez. Redtail Press, 2018. Pp. 270. Hardcover. $26.95. ISBN 978-0-9992776-7-6.

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The following review appeared 21 May 2018 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Hardly a season passes without another Twain't springing up from the fertile soil tilled so long ago by Mark Twain. His influence seems everlasting, and his writings, biography, and cultural iconography continue to inspire bountiful crops of works based upon his writings--borrowing characters, titles, or plots--or stories featuring Twain himself as a character. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn alone has inspired attempts to write sequels (beginning with Twain's own efforts), modern day adaptations, pastiches, stage and musical and movie versions, and even comic books, graphic novels, and one robotic version. These Twain'ts (they ain't Twain; hence they are Twain'ts) have sometimes taken successful innovative directions, like Jon Clinch's masterful Finn (2007), that provided a startling dark counterpoint to the original novel, illuminating the character of Pap Finn and shedding light on Huck's maternity, or Tim Champlin's recent time-traveling romps for young readers that insert modern characters into reimagined adventures of Huck, Tom, and Becky. Some Twain'ts succeed and some fail, and the vast majority fall somewhere in between, so the arrival of a successful Twain't is cause for notice.

The partnership of Tim DeRoche (text) and Daniel Gonzales (illustrations) is just such a success. In their deckle-edged, sturdily bound, beautifully designed ballad, their Huck is what Twain's Huck was--an abused child looking for a safe haven, who struggles and eventually finds humanity and freedom. Like Twain's Huck, he finds these things through a series of episodic adventures while escaping a hostile world in the company of another outcast of society--an undocumented immigrant named Miguel. Their adventures take place on the Los Angeles River, a concrete-lined urban version of Twain's Mississippi River that is just as treacherous as Twain's wild untamed land and waterscape. No attempt is made to imitate Twain's original work chapter by chapter, or character by character, or even theme by theme, or trope by trope--after all, it takes place more than 150 years after Twain's adventure in a sky-scrapery West Coast environment, but the reader will certainly notice that the more things change the more they stay the same.

The story is told by Huck, whose language and childish innocence are a modern reflection of Twain's Huck. Just as in Twain's original, the characters don't all talk alike, nor do they try. Huck uses perfectly descriptive words like rubbleshackle, flabbergassed, seriosity, immediously, meamble, adjusticated, proxicality, satisfactual, and earsplicing, and Miguel, who is this modern-day Huck's paternal mentor in much the same way Jim mentored and protected Twain's Huck, often speaks Spanish. Huck's Pap, as would be expected, speaks like a vulgarian, and other characters speak in still other ways, befitting their roles.

Besides the language and viewpoint, the story itself is structured like Twain's original, and is not merely episodic, but cinematic, a reminder that Twain's original novel is a modern novel in every way--not because it is ironic and part of the shift toward realism in its day, but in language, viewpoint, and structure. Likewise, just as E. W. Kemble's sketchy rough-hewn illustrations are integral to Twain's original, the forty-five sharp linoleum block prints (linocuts) by Daniel Gonzales are integral to DeRoche's tale. Skyscrapers loom overhead or in the background dwarfing Huck and Miguel, light and dark are in constant contrast and remind the reader that dangers lurk in the shadows, and the characters they meet seem to lunge from the page at the reader exactly as they lunge at Huck and Miguel.

The story begins in St. Petersburg, Missouri on the big river, when Pap decides to head west to Los Angeles, lured by wonderful things he's heard about the city, and takes Huck with him. Things don't work out for Pap, and Huck ventures out on his own. He's chased by Mrs. Loftus with a broom when she finds him foraging through her trash. He's fed by some kind-hearted "Mexigrants" shortly before the reader is treated to Pap's rant about the government letting "illegal Mexigrants" enter the country to steal jobs, money, and food from people like him. Says Pap to Huck "Why, I was a-gonna stop drinking and maybe go back down to the plant, but . . . they hired a Mexigrant in [my] place. And I thinks to myself, what kind of man would I be if I allowed myself to go beggin' back for my job from a man who would hire an illegal Mexigrant" (32). Ten pages later Pap uses bungee-cords to confine Huck to their camper, but Huck escapes out the roof vent. The parallels to Twain's original story are clear to anyone who has read Twain, but then Huck meets Tom Sawyer, who is African-American this time around, and soon after they meet they break into an abandoned building and stumble across Pap who is involved in a drug deal. They save him from a drug-dealer who murders an undercover cop. The case is heard in Judge Thatcher's courtroom and Huck and Tom get a $200,000 reward. Huck goes to live with Miss Watson and Ms. Douglas, who are married, causing Huck to conclude they might be thespians. He decides to run away, but during his escape he meets Miguel, their horse-groomer, who convinces him to hang around. But Huck's discomfort grows. The ladies take him to church where Huck says the "main activity . . . was deciding when to stand and when to sit. Every time a body would get comfortable in a particular position, everybody else would make to change, and you'd have to follow them . . ." (84). Huck encounters an automatic faucet in the skyscraper where Ms. Douglas works and assumes the mirror over the faucet must be a two-way mirror and that an unseen man on the other side turns the faucet on and off. Huck smiles and waves at the unseen man behind the mirror but gets no response. But the reader will respond to this lonely child trying to connect in a world that barely takes notice of him.

Further along Huck encounters two reality show families, the Gallivanting Grangerfords and the Schmoozing Shepherdsons, who engage in made-for-TV rivalries. Huck at first falls for the manufactured drama but eventually figures things out. The scenes conjure up the very real but equally pointless deadly feud of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons in Twain's novel, as well as Twain's Huck being taken in by the circus performer. Snakeskins and hooting owls make appearances and function in the story the same way they do in Twain's original, and sure enough, Pap reappears, and Huck notices his face is pale, a "fish-belly white" like Huck's Pap in Twain's original story (119). Although the plot twists and turns in directions quite different from Twain's original story, there are numerous nods to Twain's original: Pap is angered when he learns that Huck is learning to read, and covets the reward money. Huck notes that life is lovely living on a raft. But this modern Pap does not die or disappear; instead he continually reappears, even after Miguel "kills" him when Pap attacks Huck with a knife. Miguel must flee, and Huck goes with him, deciding that they should seek out Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly for help.

Pap next reappears on a bridge and shoots at Huck and Miguel as they continue their escape down the LA River, and Huck soon learns that his Pap has stabbed Miss Watson and Ms. Douglas and that the police think Miguel committed the crime and has kidnapped Huck. Miguel is bitten by a rattlesnake and when Huck goes for help he encounters a street hustler named The Duke and must first escape his clutches before returning to Miguel with the anti-venom he set out to find. Pap finds them yet again and Miguel saves Huck once again. Huck and Miguel are saved by some hippy campers who take Huck shopping disguised as a girl, and a short time later Huck and Miguel encounter a cult called The Flock, before they finally make it to Aunt Polly's law office where Pap reappears and takes Huck, Miguel, Aunt Polly, and Tom Sawyer hostage. They escape, but Tom is shot in the leg. Like Twain's Jim, Miguel sacrifices his freedom to save Tom and is captured, but--deus ex machina--who should appear in a big black car (the machina) at the very last second but Judge Thatcher.

What becomes of Huck? Miguel? Miss Watson and Ms. Douglas? Pap? Does anyone light out for the Territory? Those questions are answered in chapter 34, How It All Come Out in the End, and chapter 35, Nuthin More to Write. The fates of Huck, the thespians, and Pap will be revealed to those who read this book, but the fate of Miguel is worth noting: Judge Thatcher, knowing that Pap was responsible for the crimes attributed to Miguel, and that Miguel saved Huck's life, arranges to allow Miguel to remain in the country where he'll soon be reunited with his family. It's pretty to think so, but contemplating such a happy ending would not be realistic under current immigration laws and in the current political climate that has settled over the United States like a black shroud. However, this story is explicitly a ballad, and ballads lean folklorish and tilt toward the legendary and the lyrical, and remind us how things should have been or still can be. This ballad is satirical, funny, thrilling, hopeful, and human, a Twain't for our times.