Ichabod is itchy

June 29, 2006

Sold down the river

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 10:52 pm

I am embarassed to say that I have managed to go 29 years without ever reading a Mark Twain novel. Shocking, I know– but I have, at last, remedied the situation. My first venture into Twain-world has been Pudd’nhead Wilson. And it didn’t disappoint. It’s the story of a determined mother, Roxy. “Only one sixteenth of her was black, and that sixteenth did not show… To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro. She was a slave, and saleable as such”. Roxy has a baby boy at the same time as the mistress of her house does. To give her baby a better place in life, she swaps the babies in their cradles, as they sleep and the book then follows the lives of the two children, who grow up unaware of their ‘real’ station in life.

Roxy’s principal motivation for making the trade is the fear that her son may grow up and be ‘sold down the river’. Right from the beginning, the reader is made to understand that there could be nothing worse than being sold down the river. But it is not til quite late on in the book that you find out what exactly going ‘down the river’ means. This is one of the major successes of the book. The suspense of what lies down the river keeps you gripped and your imagination is allowed to run wild so, before you know it, you are terrified that anyone you have built up any sympathy for might suffer that terrible fate.

Another of the successes is the nature vs nurture theme that, inevitably, runs throughout the book, and is a debate you are thrown into again and again. Is it inevitable that Roxy’s real son, whose every whim is indulged, will become a ‘rotten egg’? Could he have turned out to be as angelic as Chambers– the boy who ended up growing up as a negro slave? And would either be able to handle their new positions in life if the secret should ever come out (an event that the reader foresees as inevitable in the opening Chapters, when Pudd’nhead is introduced with his obsession for collecting everyone’s fingerprints)?

With arson, murder, duels and a pair of extraordinary twins, this is definitely not a book to miss.



  1. I read this book many years ago, an old copy in the basement, and also derived great pleasure from it, as it had all sorts of interesting things in it. Mark Twain wasn’t big on employing science in his books, but having a discussion on fingerprints back then was like DNA matching and fiber analysis today.

    Comment by Douglas — June 30, 2006 @ 3:28 am |Reply

  2. Sounds intriguing, Sian, I have always been vaguely put off by the title but seems as if I shouldn’t be. I was also put off Twain by being forced to read Tom S and Huck F at school — but again, I should probably revisit.

    I think your review is really good. I like your writing style. (Incidentally, when do you get time to read all these long and dense books?)

    Comment by Maxine — June 30, 2006 @ 8:34 pm |Reply

  3. Douglas– yes, I too was amazed at the fingerprinting and just love the idea of a quirky science-bod collecting thousands of little slides of annotated glass. I can just imagine the wonderful storage cupboard one could use for them– an old dark hardwood chest of drawers like you would have for old library cards, with iron handles and covered in little nicks showing its age… ah!

    Maxine– the beauty of these books is that they are not at all long or dense! Pudd’nhead Wilson is really pretty short and definitely qualifies as ‘light reading’. I just flew through it! My longer trip in to work these days means I get a couple of hours a day to get lost in books. It’s wonderful. But I can understand about being put off by schoolday memories. I felt the same about Dickens– until last year when I read A tale of two cities and have been eating up as much Dickens as I can since!

    Comment by ichabodisitchy — July 1, 2006 @ 12:30 pm |Reply

  4. A good recommendation – I will seek it out.

    My only experience of Twain was a failed attempt to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

    Comment by James Long — July 3, 2006 @ 9:15 am |Reply

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