Thursday, July 21, 2005

Pudd'nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain

Mark Twain is one of those authors I've never really felt compelled to read. I'd always assumed that his humour was a bit too cute. Plus the fact that he is so revered turned me off.

The one story of his that I did read a few years ago did not really grab me. Recently I was given a copy of Pudd'nhead Wilson. After sitting on my shelves for about 6 months I decided to take it down and give it a whirl.

Well, I'm glad I did! What a terrific read. It tells the story of Roxy, a slave who fears for her recently born son, who she knows will as a course be sold into slavery. Roxy is one sixteenth negro, and her son, whose father is white, is one part negro, thirty-one parts white.

As luck would have it, her master has just recently had a baby. Seeing they are both white skinned, she decides to swap them. So her son grows up a priveledged white person, while the swapped white child grows up a slave.

Just this alone gives you a good idea of the fascinating psychology of the novel. The Pudd'nhead Wilson of the title is a lawyer who is treated as a bit of an oddball by the townsfolk. His main odditity is that he collects fingerprints. Twenty years down the track, this very hobby will help to solve a murder, and Pudd'nhead Wilson will be hailed a most amazing genius.

There is so much in this novel that is truly weird and wonderful, and a lot of that strangeness reverberates throughout American culture today. All I could think of was the films of David Lynch, with their unsettling depictions of everyday life.

And Hitchcock too. The novel features a transvestite killer, like in Psycho.

Twain writes in a very nice, fine style, like a particularly gifted draftsman. The suspense of the story is carried right up to the very last page. And the fate of the main characters leaves the mind very much boggled.

A master story teller at work. Chris recommends highly!

(The Oxford World's Classic copy I read comes with two additional short stories, both very good as well.)

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