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Author Jon Clinch speaks in Edwards

Sarah Mausolf
smausolf@vaildaily.com
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily"Finn" by Jon Clinch sells for $14 at The Bookworm of Edwards. Published by Random House, Inc. in 2007, it is 283 pages.
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EDWARDS, Colorado ” When Jon Clinch first read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at age 10, the novel terrified him.

“We have this perception that it’s a jolly trip down the river with Huck and Jim but basically Walt Disney sold us that,” he said.

In fact, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a highly adult novel, one that left an impression on young Clinch. Now 54 and living in Vermont, Clinch has received critical acclaim for his 2007 novel “Finn,” a character study on Huck Finn’s father. Clinch plans to discuss his book Monday with audiences at The Bookworm of Edwards.

“Finn” departs from Mark Twain’s original “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in several interesting ways. For those who haven’t cracked open the original novel in a while, it follows Huck Finn and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, through their journey down the Mississippi river. Widely hailed as one of the great American novels, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” examines the entrenched racism that characterized the pre-Civil War South.

While the original novel is a first person account told from Huck Finn’s perspective, “Finn” focuses on Huck Finn’s father, Pap Finn.

“He’s really sort of generally regarded as one of the greatest villains of American literature, although you don’t spend a lot of time with him in the book,” Clinch said. “He turns up dead in chapter nine.”

A racist, child abuser and alcoholic, the character Pap Finn is one of the most notorious villains in American literature. In “Finn,” Clinch asks: Who was Pap Finn? And why was he an incorrigible bigot?

“I wanted to understand why a character like (Pap) Finn could be as violently racist as he is in Twain’s work,” Clinch said. “And I thought about where we get racism. We tend to get it from our parents. We tend to get it from the environment in which we grow up.”

One of Clinch’s most controversial detours from the original novel is his portrayal of Huck Finn as biracial instead of white. In “Finn,” Pap Finn carries on a long-term relationship with a black woman who is Huck Finn’s mother.

“(Pap Finn) has been brought up to despise something and in his heart he can’t despise it,” Clinch said. “His father and mother taught him racism and he falls in love with a black woman.”

Huckleberry Finn’s black mother is a character Clinch imagined ” not a character borrowed from the original book. And because the presumption that Huck Finn was biracial is “pure conjecture” on Clinch’s part, it has generated some debate among Twain scholars, said Craig Hotchkiss, an education program manager for the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Conn.

“I think there are a lot of folks who think the book is a very useful addition to the discussion of not just the specific book ‘Huckleberry Finn’ but also the issues that it raises,” Hotchkiss said. “If you go all the way to the other extreme, that because it is a conjecture about Twain’s intentions, it actually clouds an already cloudy discussion.”

Though it may be controversial, Clinch’s decision to recast Huck Finn as biracial is an interesting statement on the class structure in the ante-bellum South, Hotchkiss noted.

“Jon Clinch is exploring the class similarities between the slave population and, for lack of a better word, white trash, in ante-bellum society,” Hotchkiss. “They’re not as far different from each other than you might think and it’s sort of ironic that you get the most virulent expressions of racism from the very group that’s closest to the slaves.”

Clinch recognizes that he is the first author to portray Huck Finn as biracial. However, he is not the first scholar to suggest that black culture influenced Huck Finn’s character. Twain experts widely acknowledge that Twain based some of Huck Finn’s language and attitudes toward society on black children and youths Twain knew growing up, Clinch said.

“By making Huck half black, it kind of gives credit where it was due to black culture’s contribution to American society,” Clinch said.

Aside from re-imagining Huck Finn as biracial, Clinch describes violence along the Mississippi River in ways Twain could not. In fact, the novel opens with the image of a flayed dead body floating down the river.

“Twain was very concerned when he was writing Huck that he was unable to describe violence he saw along the Mississippi River when he was a child and young man because he was writing for an audience of boys and he was writing in a time period (in which the) culture had a Victorian slant to it that was sort of inescapable,” Clinch said.

Clinch, who was unable to find representation for his first five novels, finds it gratifying that “Finn” has received so much praise. The American Library Association named “Finn” a notable book. Plus, the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune included the book among their lists of the best novels of 2007.

High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.


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