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St. Louis University
Where does creative non-fiction end, and "true" fiction begin? The question is often a thorny one, and Michael Pearson's body of work up to and including Shohola Falls is a case in point. His texts defy classification in the same way that Roughing It, Mark Twain's quintessential Western travel book does. As a "travel book," Roughing It contains much that is fictionalized, some "true" experiences, and a number of tall tales, sketches, and "stretchers." Pearson's earlier works fall into the category of creative non-fiction, which may explain Syracuse University Press's publication of a work of "fiction" like Shohola Falls, and why Pearson himself appears to be fascinated with the blurry territory between truth and fiction. Imagined Places: Journeys into Literary America describes Pearson's own journey into the literary landscapes of Robert Frost's Vermont, William Faulkner's Mississippi, Flannery O'Connor's Georgia, Ernest Hemingway's Key West, and Mark Twain's Missouri. While Imagined Places contains biographies of the authors, it is less about them than it is about how place and space affect the literary mind. Pearson's Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx has been reviewed as evocative of the literary geography of growing up in the Bronx of the 1950s. Thus, Pearson's works tend to transcend categories in many of the same ways that Mark Twain's did. It seems fitting, then, that young Tommy Blanks, the protagonist of Shohola Falls, draws from the character of Huck Finn to make his own connections to his personal coming of age. The novel is like Pearson's previous works, yet at the same time very different. It innovatively explores the boundaries of fiction and creative non-fiction in an utterly fascinating way.
"My name is Tommy Blanks. Or at least that's close enough to the truth for now. I've found in the last few years that some lies are nearer to what's true than most of us ever expect to come, anyway. So I don't draw too many hard or fast lines between what's imagined and what's recollected. Sometimes what we dream up is real enough to live with and turns out to be the story of our lives. Our lies may turn out to be what was true all along."
This opening short paragraph sets up an echo of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that continues to resonate through the story of young Tommy Blanks (Blankenship), who turns out to be the great-great grandson of Tom Blankenship, boyhood friend to Samuel Clemens. The book is really only a touchstone for Twain, although it contains many "truths" from Twain's own life. Tommy Blanks is a young boy, much like Huck, who uses fiction, including and primarily Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a method of dealing with (and avoiding) his own life. Pearson deftly weaves a storyline that utilizes information about the fictional Huck Finn and the biographies of Sam Clemens and Tom Blankenship that evokes Twain while at the same time telling his own bildungsroman set in America's sixties.
Young Tommy Blanks endures hardship, the death of his mother and disappearance of his father. He is arrested for shoplifting Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many situations in his life closely parallel Huck's journey. The title, Shohola Falls, is drawn from an idyllic pool and waterfall located in Pennsylvania that is evocative of the safety Huck and Jim find on the Mississippi river raft. It is the trysting place for lovers; a place where Tommy can avoid officials from the Boys Home; and where he can avoid facing his own demons and the effects of his relationship with a mulatto girlfriend. Eventually, Tommy must leave the safety of the Falls--lighting out for California to find the lost journal that his great-great grandfather, Tom Blankenship, has left for him. There are plenty of references throughout to Twain and his writings. Twainians will recognize information gleaned from Twain's letters, his autobiography, and his fiction embedded within Tommy's story, although they are not always attributed to their original sources.
Also of interest are plot twists that, though they may be completely fictionalized occurrences for Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens), complicate our beliefs about what Twain actually thought or why. Blankenship's "journal" creates a story about Sam Clemens as a teenager, who falls in love with a Hannibal mulatto girl; young Sam leaves town because he can't face their racial differences. Blankenship eventually marries this girl, who is Tommy's great-great grandmother. Tommy's quest for the journal begins when he leaves behind his own girlfriend for similar reasons.
Pearson himself claims that he has attempted to stay true to the historical record when there was one, but that "fact and fiction do nurture each other" and that in the case of Tom Blankenship, "because little is known, I was left free to imagine what might have happened to the real-life Huck Finn" (203). The Blankenship "journal entries" bear out the author's assessment. While they give readers the "look and feel" of truth, they are clearly imaginative, often "borrowed" from Pearson's sources, and ultimately serve Tommy's process of finding himself during a time when the image of Vietnam loomed large in every teenager and San Francisco was Mecca. Pearson uses the facts of Mark Twain's life and the fictional facts of Huck Finn's in some most unusual and interesting ways to advance his own tale. Of particular interest to Twain scholars is a parallel to Huck's justification of stealing (found on page 9); the creative use of material from Paine's Autobiography, (186); and a parallel to the discovery of the first half of the Huck Finn manuscript in a California attic.
In his afterward, Pearson notes that though he could "try to note each
instance of the convergence of history and the imagination and each point where
they diverge," he purposely has not. His reasoning: "First, there
are mysteries in a book even for the one who wrote it, and I hope that along
the way readers will point some of them out to me. Second, and more important,
I'll leave the profound exploring of such territory to the reader. Creating
too many road signs would only turn an adventure into a tour" (204). His
sentiments cannot but be endorsed by his readers. While one might certainly
read Pearson's novel as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn revisited and
updated, the novel is much more than that, and deserves reading in its own right.
Pearson has accomplished much more than a "rewritten" Huck. This text
fictionalizes Twain's earlier works in a most unusual and fascinating way. I
found this novel to be both a contemplative and a fun read, and recommend it
highly on its own merits, regardless of how one feels about Mark Twain. Pearson
is a talented writer with a flair for description and complicated web-weaving.
His novel asks the same question I posed at the beginning of this review, and
then attempts to answer it through the life experiences of its protagonist.