The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, was a literary departure of sorts for Twain, as he used a centralized character and softened his use of satire. Based largely on his years along the Mississippi River in Hannibal, St. Petersburg in the novel, it is highly autobiographical, drawing on Twains childhood memories of family and friends.
Tom is characterized as a bad good boy, one who is at the core a decent sort but who has just enough rascal in him to find himself in trouble- often! As punishment for skipping school, Toms Aunt Polly has him whitewash a fence. Tom manages to turn fence washing into community effort, enticing & cajoling other boys to help. Not only does the fence get painted, but Tom becomes rich in things that boys treasure. Soon after this incident, Tom falls in love with new girl Becky Thatcher. His lamentations over desiring her and the lengths to which Tom goes to try and get her attention seem like a chivalric knights tale.
One of the major conflicts in the book arises from Toms relationship with Huckleberry Finn. Tom is not allowed to play with Huck, son of the town drunk, but takes up with him at every opportunity. Huck convinces Tom that saying an incantation in at night while swinging a dead cat in a cemetery over the grave of a recently buried evil person will remove his warts. The night takes on a really sinister twist when the boys witness the murder of Dr. Robinson by Injun Joe and Muff Potter. Injun Joe convinces the drunken Potter that he was the responsible party in the murder and Potter runs away leaving his knife at the scene. Huck and Tom swear a blood oath never to tell what they have seen. The murder changes the tone of the book from humorous and nostalgic to one of violence and evil.
After witnessing the murder, Toms world begins to crash around him so he, Joe Harper, and Huck decide to run away. They borrow a raft, steal some food, and float down to a wooded island where they camp out like pirates. The townspeople search for the boys and after a few days start planning their funerals. Tom has learned this by sneaking back home and eavesdropping on his grieving aunt and Mrs. Harper. Tom relishes the attention the boys are getting, including Beckys lamenting his untimely death and the boys are overwhelmed with a warm reception when they march down the church aisle during the ministers eulogy at their own funeral. Tom uses his newfound appreciation to spurn Becky, as their relationship continues on a rocky road.
During the trial of Muff Potter Tom reveals what he saw indicating Injun Joe was the real killer. Injun Joe manages to escape striking fear in both boys hearts. While searching for treasure the boys discover Injun Joe in disguise and hear him plan a robbery and revenge job. While waiting for Injun Joe to reappear so he can be exposed, Becky and Tom go on a picnic. They get lost in a cave for three days. Tom spies the silhouette of Injun Joe in the cave, but luckily locates an opening for he and Becky to escape. Judge Thatcher orders the cave sealed and Tom is both filled with compassion for Injun Joes resulting death and relief at no longer having to live in fear. The story ends with The Widow Douglas taking Huck in and with Huck questioning his proper life in the Widows care, lamenting for his old self.
The tale leads the reader to believe that there will be more of Toms adventures in future books. While readers can only use conjecture about Tom growing into adulthood, they have read a very satisfying story about life in an earlier, simpler time set on a river.
The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest.