Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book of the Week: THE ACTUAL AND TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER by Jessica Lawson

First Paragraph(s): My left leg twitched at the tickle of another night-boy. Hidden by the wide trunk of a river sycamore, I shifted in my crouch and reached a hand inside Jon’s overalls to trap and smack the creeping skitter. Darn things had been a considerable nuisance since I settled myself along the Mississippi to have a look-see at the grounded steamboat and its crew. 
The men had piled onshore and hauled sitting logs from the brush while I played at them being pirates and me being a stowaway. With the help of passed flasks and a roaring riverside fire, they’d gone from grumbling to mighty spirited in the last hour, and before long I got sucked in by a story one of them was reading from a tablet of writing paper. I was tolerably invested in the tale of a dimwit and his ornery bullwhip—the dimwit having whipped himself nearly to tears while the bull watched—and barely had time to react when the listener nearest me rose with a chuckle and a belch. 
While the crew applauded the story’s end, I deepened my crouch and slunk farther behind the tree, checking to make sure Jon’s marble sack was still stuffed into one of my hip pockets. 
The belching man stumbled around the fire with a happy laugh. “You mean to tell us,” he said, lurching at the storyteller, “that you put those words together in your own head?” 
 “That’s how writing generally works,” the story man said, standing and stretching. “Think up a few lies, put them to paper. I imagine any of you liars would make a fine writer." 

Esteemed Reader, I'm so excited to tell you about this week's book as it was written by an Esteemed Reader such as yourself and it's one of my new favorites. Jessica Lawson is a long time friend of the blog and a fan of the world's finest zombie fiction (mine, naturally). When I learned she had a book coming out, I was curious. When I found out it was a middle grade novel set in the world of Tom Sawyer, I absolutely had to read it.

I love Tom Sawyer almost as much as I love Huckleberry Finn and it's a wonder to me that a Becky Thatcher solo book wasn't already a thing. It's one of those ideas that's so clever you have to wonder why no one else has done it. I'd be hard pressed to think of a concept for a book more likely to appeal to agents, editors, teachers, librarians, and finally readers, than a new story set in Tom Sawyer's world. What I said to Mrs. Ninja when I first saw the book was "all Jessica has to do is write a story that doesn't suck, and she's golden."

Jessica Lawson has done a lot better than simply "not suck." Her writing is fiercely funny and written in the style of Mark Twain while making itself a bit more accessible to the younger readers of today. Does she have the same wit as the literary giant whose shadow is cast over all modern literature and who is remembered as a greater writer than even he could have possibly been? And that there question, which readers are bound to ask, is probably the reason why this book hasn't already been published. Comparisons between Jessica Lawson, debut novelist, and Mark Twain, literary god, are inevitable and just to make certain, her publisher has boxed her brand-new book with Twain's classics.




The marketing is a double-edged sword. It's a swell promotion opportunity for a new writer, but it puts her in the hot seat, not to mention her middle grade story for modern readers is set is Missouri 1860 when slave owning was still a thing (American prison statistics suggest it's still kind of a thing). This tells us that Jessica Lawson is either one of the bravest writers who ever lived or crazy. Well, she's not crazy. She is, however, extremely clever. 

That fellow above in the first few paragraphs of the book is a steam-boat pilot passing through by the name of Sam Clemens. No spoilers, but you long-time Mark Twain fans can be assured that Lawson pays homage where homage is due and includes a very fun plot device that declares her book not to be official cannon before anyone else can. By acknowledging within the story that she is clearly not Mark Twain and her book is its own separate thing, Jessica Lawson skirts around the comparisons and lowers the guard of feisty English majors everywhere.

As for slavery, Becky and her family have Miss Ada, a "colored woman" (alas, there are no n-bombs dropped) who lives with them and cooks their meals and is technically their slave, although the family is from the North and they don't think of her that way. She's with them of her own free will and genuinely cares for Becky, but there are dynamics to that situation wisely left unexplored. Miss Ada is a lot like Alice on The Brady Bunch, an unofficial member of the family. If there's anything that gives me pause about The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, which is a wonderful book, it's this white-washed fence of a portrayal of slavery as "not that bad." You long-time Esteemed Readers may recall I've taken a strong stance on this in the past.

If I wrote this book (why didn't I write this book!?!), I wouldn't be able to resist the temptation of writing about the harsh realities of slave owning (even a nice family from the North might change when moving to the south to discover they can own a person and more people if they like).

And it would be a mistake.

Slavery is a scene steal-er and you can't have just a little of it in your story without it taking over. How will modern readers sympathize with the Thatchers or any of the slave-owners in town if we think of them as true slave-owners? It would put a barrier between us and create a situation that the plot would have to address, drawing focus away from all else.

As I've said, Jessica Lawson is extremely clever. She doesn't deny the reality of slavery, she simply acknowledges it without wallowing or allowing it to become the main event. She does this primarily by limiting the perspective of the novel to Becky. Becky sees Miss Ada as a sort of surrogate mother, not property, and that makes us care for Becky, which is priority one. And besides, Becky Thatcher has plenty to deal with outside of slavery, such as the very real possibility that the Widow Douglas might just be a witch (love this passage):

Sid scowled plenty. “I reckon we’re not. See her red-tipped tools? Might as well be a devil’s pitchfork in that mix. She’s always outside with her crazy weeds and herbs.” He stared at me again, jutting his chin out for good measure. “Evil weeds and herbs. For her spells, I imagine.” 
I squinted at the herbs. One looked like  lavender to me. And I saw a bunch of mint for certain. Miss Ada says it spreads like gossip. But I knew it wasn’t polite to argue too much when a new friend is pointing out the town witch. Besides, those red-tipped tools were a dead giveaway. Everyone knew red was a devil color unless it was on clothes, strawberry jam, the American flag, or Christmas decorations.

I laughed all through The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher. It's a fun story with a new take on familiar characters readers are going to love. Younger readers probably aren't going to care about the authorial acrobatics Jessica Lawson is performing. They're going to care that this a witty tale of fun similar to Tom Sawyer, while doing it's own thing.

Becky gains a new best friend in Amy Lawrence and the two give Huck and Tom a run for their money in the adventure having game. I'll let Ruth explain the particulars of their unique relationship:

Ruth ignored her and jabbed a finger toward the stream. “Why don’t you go sit with Amy Lawrence? Her daddy being the town drunk and your daddy being the town judge, you’re bound to run into each other soon enough.” She smiled sweetly, but her eyes stayed as mean as a trapped raccoon. “Oh, and her mama’s dead and I hear your brother’s dead, so you can talk about dead people too.”

For all the fun and excitement, this story has a lot of heart. Becky's brother Jon, who she sometimes called Huckleberry--which becomes important later--has died months before the start of our story. As if this weren't enough grief for one eleven-year-old girl, Becky's mother is severely depressed and has retreated to her bedroom full time, leaving Becky to fend for herself.

Becky has plenty of emotional baggage to unpack by the story's end, but she's also got a problem. Tom Sawyer is a no-good tattletale and needs to be dealt with. Oh, and there's the little matter of traveling criminals on the loose:

Straightening my posture so I looked good and grown-up, I stepped into Daddy’s home office to say goodbye. My eye caught on a poster sitting on his desk. Daddy was nowhere to be seen, so I let my shoulders drop and roll into a hunch while I leaned forward to read. 

WANTED: 2 PRITCHARDS (Billy and Forney) 
Wanted for train robbery, bank robbery, and possible murder. 
Description: Billy Pritchard~near 6 foot tall. Forney Pritchard~considerably shorter. 
Few teeth, longish dark hair, fondness for liquor and tobacco. 
Generally filthy.

Goodness me. I hope those Pritchard boys don't become an issue for Becky and Amy later on:) I'd tell you more, but this review is already too long, so I'll just say that any Mark Twain fan should snap up this book at once. If you're not a Mark Twain fan, you haven't read him, so read this book and then read his and you've got yourself a wonderful weekend ahead:)

Jessica Lawson has penned a truly impressive debut novel that brought me a lot of joy. I respect her as a writer whose considerable skill I can appreciate, but I also like her as a storyteller. The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher is a great tale and something extra special readers don't come across that often, but always appreciate when they find.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher:

“Makes me think of John 8:32.” “Jon who?” “It’s a Bible verse, dear. John 8:32 says that the truth will set you free.” “Yes, ma’am,” I said, thinking two things. First, that instead of setting him free, the truth would most likely get Danny Boggs a whipping or scolding at home. Second, I guessed that my brother Jon and the Bible’s John probably wouldn’t be friends up in Heaven, having different opinions on what sorts of things made a person feel free.

His lips fell like someone who’d opened up a present and found a pile of cat poop.

That’s a beautiful and dangerous thing to have in a best friend, one that’s not inclined to lie. Daddy would probably plunk honesty in the category of being responsible and grown-up, but telling the plain truth didn’t suit my lifestyle much. I’d been gradually convincing Amy that most lies were right nice, because you were telling people what they wanted to hear, and what could be wrong with making people happy?

“Brought you half a pie,” I whispered back. “Miss Ada made extra.” Maybe it would cheer her daddy up. I heard that misery loves company, but I suspected it would get along with pie, too. Also, I figured Amy was an inexperienced mischief-maker, and it didn’t hurt to balance the idea of bad-doing with a reward of something good-tasting.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn't happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review! I'm more intrigued than ever and looking forward to reading this one day soon.

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  2. So agree with you. This is a fantastic read.So excited for Jess!

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  3. The alternate POV with Becky Thatcher sounds fun, nice to know that the writing style is reminiscent of Mark Twain but more easily readable. That was the main complaint I heard about Tom Sawyer when it was read in school last year.

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  4. I love how they coordinated the covers! Very cool.

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Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.