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The message of 'Huck Finn' needs no sanitizing

Ihave been madly in love with Becky Thatcher since I was a youngster in the tiny burg of Kerby nearly half a century ago.

Mark Twainophiles will recognize her as the love of young Tom Sawyer in the book by that title. That wonderful tale captivated me when I was about 12 years old.

In fact, I like to think my wife is the real-life image of my imagined Judge Thatcher's daughter. With Maureen, I would happily get lost in a cave. Indeed, my old pal Mr. Claustrophobia would be welcome to tag along.

But my all-time favorite book by my favorite author has to be "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." After reading it, I wanted to build a raft, launch it on the Illinois River and float all the way to the Rogue. Heck, maybe even on down to the Pacific Ocean.

I mention the books because Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama, is reportedly working with NewSouth Books to publish them sans the highly offensive "N-word." The new versions would replace it with the word "slave."

Gribben wants to cleanse the books of the despicable N-word — it appears 219 times alone in Huck Finn — to make them more palatable to American schools. Huck Finn is now the fourth-most banned book in our schools.

Gribben's goal is admirable: He wants to broaden the young readership of the books by rendering them inoffensive.

I understand his rationale but couldn't disagree more with the proposed cure. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the fact Auburn edged my beloved University of Oregon for the national football championship last week.

To understand my perspective, let's go back to Kerby in the early 1960s for a moment.

My family wasn't quite as poor as Huck and his pappy in their dirt-floor cabin. After all, our tiny home did have a wood floor. But my pappy had died three years earlier of cancer, leaving a widow and five kids.

We had electricity but no car, and certainly no television. I lived for books, borrowing every one I could from the library at the now-defunct Kerby Elementary School.

It was particularly pleasant when my favorite teacher, Eileen Orton, was the librarian of the day. She often recommended a good read for the weekend.

And Tom and Huck were high on her list. I devoured "Tom Sawyer" first, and was saddened to have the book come to an end.

But Huck was waiting.

I remember finding the frequent use of the N-word unsettling. It had surfaced in "Tom Sawyer" but seemed to be found on every other page in Huck Finn.

I initially profoundly disliked Huck. I found him to be a crude, rude racist. I figured he wasn't even smart enough to appreciate how lucky he was to have a friend like Jim, the runaway slave.

But I wasn't ready to give up on the book. Perhaps it was raining that weekend. So I plowed on — and became totally captured by Twain's unparalleled genius as the subversive tale floated down the Mississippi. Even an uneducated Kerby kid was able to pick up on the fact the runaway slave was helping the runaway white boy shed light on the darkness of racism.

Later, no doubt inspired by Huck, I recall lighting up wild grape vine stogies cut along the Illinois with a couple of local Kerby urchins. Huck may have enjoyed them, but a couple of puffs made me sick as a dog.

The turning point in the book for me was when Huck, filled with guilt that he was sinning against all the South stood for at the time, wrote a note to Miss Watson to tell her where she could find her runaway slave.

He sat there, looking at the note and thinking about how Jim had been a friend who had taught him about humanity.

"I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' — and tore it up," Huck says.

I distinctly remember cheering silently to myself as I read that passage.

Surely, if an unremarkable kid nearly 50 years ago in Kerby could understand Twain's point, youngsters today — in a country where we now celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day — will have no problem understanding his message.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.