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SideLines: Revisiting my old friend Tom Sawyer

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012 11:39 a.m. CDT

It is one of the great scenes in American literature, as impractical as it is hilarious.

Tom Sawyer has been delegated to whitewash a fence for his Aunt Polly. Not just any fence, but one that stands 9 feet tall and spans 30 yards.

With the ingenuity that marks most of Mark Twain’s work, Tom manages to trick his friends into thinking whitewashing is a privilege, rather than a chore, something not everyone gets to do.

In exchange for “letting” his friends do the work for him, Tom accumulates what he considers a treasure trove: 12 marbles, a piece of blue bottle glass to look through, a key that can’t unlock anything, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six firecrackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass doorknob, a dog collar without a dog and the handle of a knife.

Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” when I was in grade school. I actually didn’t read it until I was in college.

But it didn’t matter. It was funny and outrageous and struck every chord in my being. Although primarily a children’s book, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is one of my favorite books, one of those great gems you can pick up every so often and never get tired of reading. Although its sequel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is considered the more serious work and has generated its share of controversy, I always preferred Tom Sawyer.

A friend of mine once asked what was so great about Tom Sawyer. More than anything, I think, the novel captures the spirit of American youth in the 19th century, if not today. With its language and attitudes, the book also reflects a side of life that no longer exists.

I can’t speak for girls, but “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” always struck me as the perfect book for sixth grade boys. It’s about that time you secretly realize it’s all right to like girls. The little puppy romance between Tom and Becky Thatcher reminds me a little of my experiences with a girl that age, although I must admit I was never courageous enough to take a beating for her in class – which may be why I haven’t seen her in years.

The book is also full of the adventures and  mischief that a lot of little boys are full of. Of course, few of us ever ran away to a deserted island or walked in on our own funerals or got lost in a cave or found gold.

But we sure wanted to.

This Sunday, the DeKalb Public Library is going to kick off its sixth annual Big Read program. Through a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, the library will host a series of events throughout October to promote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

The month-long Big Read begins with – what else? – the whitewashing of a picket fence at the library from 1 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 30.

A total of 6,000 copies of the novel, which was written in 1876, will be given away free.

I strongly suggest anyone who has never read the book get a copy of it. If you have read it, this is a good chance to reread it.

It is so well written, there are places you can actually feel the summer sun beating down on you. In other chapters, you share the children’s excitement and even their boredom. You can almost feel the sting of the headmaster’s cane on Tom’s backside.

If nothing else, the novel shows that not everything labeled a “classic” has to be boring.

Dee Cover, the director of the DeKalb Public Library, who recently reread the book for the first time since her childhood, apparently shares my feeling.

“I am really amazed at the depth of the book,” she told me.

Personally, I can’t wait to get my own copy and read it again. It’s been too long.

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