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February 4, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: Twain’s Sawyer helps us yearn for ‘wilderness of childhood’

“SATURDAY morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step. The locust-trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.”

— Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”

My cousin, Roger, stopped in one day last summer for a glass of tea and a little conversation. Rog has lived an hour’s drive away for years and now, and besides summer reunions, I don’t see him nearly often enough. He’s a good man who has raised a good family, and he owns a healthy sense of appreciation for not only the life he has now, but also the lives we had years ago as kids.

We talked the afternoon away that day, ignoring our work, but adding considerably to the stockpile of memories I plan to share with readers in a book that’s still only a quarter of the way done. But what he said as he walked out the door to head home stayed with me the most, primarily because it was so true: “We were really lucky to grow up where we did,” he said.

We (that includes his brother and sister, and my brother and sister) didn’t lead lives of privilege and luxury. We most certainly lived with grandparents and parents who loved and looked after us, but they also encouraged us to develop a spirit of adventure and use our imaginations as we explored the woods and creeks that made up our back yards. That’s not to say that we were never bored, but I honestly can’t recall being in that condition very often; there was just too much to do.

I had that thought in mind last fall as I re-read Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” for the first time in years. Twain’s tale of whitewashed fences, grave robbing and treasure hunts also just happens to be this year’s reading selection for the “Wabash Valley Big Read,” a program sponsored by the Vigo County Public Library and a number of local businesses and organizations (The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest). Through Sawyer, Twain undoubtedly relived a bit of his own childhood, one that wasn’t easy, nor often very romantic. He was working by the time he was 12, and had already lost his father and two siblings by then.

Roger was no Huck Finn — although he and my brother, John, did attempt some rather harrowing feats, most of which flew in the face of the laws of gravity — and I was certainly no Tom. There was no river rafting, no school skipping, no life-threatening escapades in graveyards and caves and courtrooms. But, we practically lived outdoors in those days, blessed, I suppose, by televisions that were lucky to pull in three fuzzy stations, and a wooded and watered terrain that just begged for grape vine swinging and wading and tree climbing. My parents did their parts by encouraging the camping and crawdad catching and dirt clod throwing.

That may not be the case nearly as much anymore, and even though children now are growing up in a different world than the one that helped raise Roger and me, activity and exploration and self-developed spirits of inquiry and adventure, as Huck and Tom most certainly had, seem to be less and less prevalent. Luckily, we didn’t experience our childhoods like Huck, whose mother had died and who faced the abuse of an alcoholic father. Readers never really learn why and how Tom was orphaned, so at least part of his and Huck’s stories serve as reminders to us that not all children can experience idyllic, play-filled childhoods. But, despite their troubles, Tom and Huck prevail, and certainly their spirits of adventure helped them do it.

Most of the statistics I found about childhood play these days are dated, but it’s apparent that folks have been concerned about our kids’ inactivity for years. One study of childcare providers in the Cincinnati area, as reported by author Lenore Skenazy, suggested that children of pre-school age were spending only 2 to 3 percent of their day in “vigorous activity.” Skenazy says: “Children spending 97 percent of their day not running around? It’s like a desk job, except with cookie time … it’s bad. Bad for their bodies, their brains, their blubber.”

Author Michael Chabon wrote a fascinating essay on the subject for the “New York Review of Books” in 2009 (I read it in “Smithsonian Magazine”) called “The Wilderness of Childhood.” He said, “People read stories of adventure — and write them — because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity.”

Of course, much of that “calamity” is experienced through our imaginations, the powerful voices in our heads and hearts, that can’t be duplicated on a computer monitor or television screen or phone. Twain’s childhood wilderness was Hannibal, Chabon’s, a copse of woodland on the edge of a small town in Maryland. For Roger and me, it was the shallow water of Spring Creek to the west, the sandy ridges of Old Man Stahl’s fields to the east, Lyman Pendergast’s wooded field road to the south, and the ancient beech tree atop my uncle’s hill to the north. It was a world just big enough to get lost in one afternoon at a time.

Twain’s romantic vision of the Mississippi, of Jackson’s Island, of Cardiff Hill, and McDougal’s Cave are universal. We can relive or reinvent our own “Wilderness of Childhood” through Tom Sawyer’s adventures. We might even be inspired to help our children explore their own.

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