Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Most Sand

"She was the best girl I ever see, and had the most sand."

That's Huck Finn's description of Mary Jane, the girl that got away. I've been rereading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lately, and though I find certain parts pretty boring or pretty ridiculous (Tom Sawyer's shenanigans for setting Jim free), I liked the book more this time. I hadn't noticed Mary Jane before, but now I see that it's a sign of Huck's growing maturity, before he resolves to free Jim from slavery. Mary Jane is one of the daughters of a dead man named Peter Wilks, and the conmen known as the duke and the king pretend to be Peter Wilks's brothers from England, so they can steal the inheritance. Huck Finn goes along with their scheme at first but starts to feel so guilty that he decides to steal the money back for the orphan girls. He expects to escape by himself (and reach Jim, who is waiting with the raft), then send a letter back later to tell the girls where the money's hidden.

However, his plans are altered in Chapter 28 by Mary Jane, the oldest of the girls. One morning Huck finds her crying; she is upset about the slaves being sold and the family members being separated forever. So Huck confesses the truth about the duke and the king; once the fraud is discovered, the sale of the slaves would be invalidated, and they would return home in two weeks. Mary Jane is quite grateful to Huck, and doesn't distrust him at all for having initially helped the conmen. She even goes along with his plan to get her out of the way, so that he can still try to escape without the conmen following. She says she will pray for Huck, and he is struck by her kindness and faith in him.

"She had the grit to pray for Judus if she took the notion--there warn't no back-down to her, I judge.... She had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand.... I hain't ever seen her since that time that I see her go out of that door; no, I hain't ever seen her since, but I reckon I've thought of her a many and a many million times, and of her saying she would pray for me; and if ever I'd a thought it would do any good for me to pray for her, blamed if I wouldn't a done it or bust."

I find it interesting that he refers to her goodness as both "grit" and "sand", and I wonder if both of those terms were common back then. (The book was published in 1884, but the setting was pre-war, sometime in the 1830s.) It reminds me a little of Mattie Ross in True Grit, but Mattie there is portrayed as hard, stubborn, and not soft at all. Yet Twain and Huck describe this honorable Mary Jane as having sand, and it being a good trait. And though Mary Jane has no problem with having slaves herself (they technically belonged to her father I suppose), she does have enough compassion for the slaves that she can't be happy about ripping families apart.

It does make me wonder, though, if Jim ever reunited with his own family. During the book, he talks about buying his wife out of slavery and then working to buy their children out of slavery as well. He even recalls a story about hitting his disobedient daughter, only to discover that she had never heard his command in the first place; she became deaf due to a childhood fever, and he felt terrible about it. With all this talk of Jim's family, I found it ridiculous for him to go along with Tom Sawyer's shenanigans in delaying his escape from the Phelps's farm. Jim was a grown adult and should have been able to put his foot down. But I suppose that's the nature of slavery, that a grown man would have to submit his will to any white person, no matter the age. I still dislike Twain's ending to the novel, where the boys still talk about going off and having more adventures, and Jim never saying that he's going to go try to buy his wife with his new money. Unless the forty dollars isn't enough to buy her, and he needs to make more cash somehow? I just would have appreciated more clarification about that.

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