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THE TROUBLE BEGINS AT 8: A LIFE OF MARK TWAIN IN THE WILD, WILD WEST

Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 10 years, 9 months ago

09 February 2008 THE TROUBLE BEGINS AT 8: A LIFE OF MARK TWAIN IN THE WILD, WILD WEST by Sid Fleischman, Greenwillow, July 2008, 200p. ISBN: 978-0-06-134431-2

 

"'I took a tranquil delight in the kind of labor which is such a luxury...--to wit, the labor of other people.'" -- Mark Twain quoted in THE TROUBLE BEGINS AT 8

 

"I'm heading for that Golden Gate, hoping I won't be too late

to find the one that I still love.

It's you I'm dreaming of, San Francisco nights.

San Francisco days, San Francisco nights. -- Chris Isaak

 

"It has not escaped my notice that there is a certain family resemblance in the gallery of fathers and father proxies I have drawn in my novels. Most are birds of passage, airy optimists with nimble skills, each on a westward migration. Praiseworthy, the butler in By the Great Horn Spoon! runs off to the California gold rush (and strikes it rich when barbering miners' hair; he discovers gold in it). The magician-father in Mr. Mysterious & Company is heading for San Diego with his family to settle down at last. And Will Buckthorn, the great rascal of Chancey and the Grand Rascal, describes himself as 'a wayfaring printer, mule skinner, soldier, tinkerer, barn painter and everything in between.'" --Sid Fleischman from The Abracadabra Kid: a Writer's Life

 

As a kid growing up on suburban Long Island, I derived my first real impressions of San Francisco from reading Sid Fleischman's By the Great Horn Spoon! in fifth grade. By the time I saw Disney's movie version of the book -- The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967) -- there were frequent pieces on the nightly news about San Francisco that offered impressions equally wild but somehow quite different from those of young Jack Flagg's experiences during the days of the Gold Rush...

 

"'The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer day in San Francisco.'"

 

Sid Fleischman has augmented the list of tales he's crafted about characters making a westward migration; stories which are essential reading for impressionable young people. In his latest book, as with By the Great Horn Spoon!, there are gold nuggets and guns; explosions and ships; duels and double crosses; all associated with a young man who has headed West.

 

"Strobe light's beam creates dreams;

Walls move, minds do, too,

On a warm San Franciscan night.

Old child, young child, feel all right

On a warm San Franciscan night. -- Eric Burdon and the Animals, 1967

 

But this time Fleischman shares a (mostly) true story of the West -- the story that begins with Mark Twain's childhood in Missouri and then focuses on his years in the Wild West; a story which ends exactly one hundred years before the height of the Haight and the hippies.

 

"Through the years he had much to say about shelters, leaving behind Twainisms like room tips. He recalled a hotel with partitions so thin one could hear 'occupants of adjoining rooms changing their minds.' Of another inn, he noted that it 'used to be a good hotel, but that proves nothing--I used to be a good boy.'"

 

Sid Fleischman, the Abracadabra Kid, is the perfect magician for conjuring up young Sam Clemens. (And, no, it has nothing to do with their having nearly been contemporaries.) Sid had a career as a live performer during an era when it really mattered and he worked and studied hard to develop his sense of humor, his timing, and the ability to turn a phrase. Thus, he can so well appreciate, grasp, and then illustrate for readers how the master, Samuel L. Clemens aka Mark Twain, did this time and again in both his writing and on stage:

 

"Exaggeration in life and in his fiction was the oxygen of his genius."

 

I previously knew nothing of the true story Sid tells here: how Clemens' successful and abruptly-ended young career as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi was followed by his spending two weeks participating in the Civil War; then he got his butt out of town.

 

Accompanying his elder brother to Nevada and pursuing a wide variety of occupations and misadventures, it turned out that only one of those pursuits seemed to yield any lasting success:

 

"The sketch found its way to Virginia City, where it caught the eye of Joe Goodman, whimsical editor of the Daily Territorial Enterprise. One of the few Jews in the Territory, he could detect talent in its wet-behind-the-ears stage. He offered Sam a reporter's job at twenty-five dollars a week.

"Despite a failure of his dreams, Twain continued running a prospector's fever. He thought it would be foolish to retreat, when the next mountain might be shot through with gold and silver. But looking at himself, he saw a fly-specked daguerreotype of a miner down on his luck. How shabby had the riverboat dandy become, with even his bushy eyebrows caked white with alkali dust. Reviewing his career to date promised only that he would become a distinguished failure.

"'I had been a grocery clerk, for one day,' he recalled. But he had eaten so much candy, the proprietor had fired him. 'I studied law for an entire week,' he added, only to give it up as boring. He failed at blacksmithing and took a job as a 'bookseller's clerk for a while, but the customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort, and so the proprietor gave me a furlough and forgot to put a limit on it.

' "Joy was not the raw material of humor, Twain was to discover. The dark source was sorrow. In his hands, as he recalled the bruises of his past, sorrow often wore slap shoes and a putty nose. "He accepted the newspaper offer."

 

THE TROUBLE BEGINS AT 8 refers to the advertisements of Twain's doing onstage "lectures" out West after finally finding himself with some lasting fame. Having developed his performance skills through his writing -- "Stand-up comedy had not yet been invented. Newspaper readers were looking to journalists like him for laugh lines." -- Twain became a success on stage and would come to rely on those performances for some real money.

 

But in writing a biographical story Fleischman asks, "What is one to do with Mark Twain, who believed, 'A lie well told is immortal?'"

 

Fleischman concludes his tale with a chapter summarizing Twain's life following his "San Francisco nights" -- the marriage, children, and going on to write some of America's most famous and beloved books -- followed by a chapter titled "The Truth, More or Less" in which Sid -- as he previously did with his Harry Houdini biography, ESCAPE! -- shares his well-researched opinions on which stories about Twain might or might not be true. (This is a great lesson in information literacy.)

 

It goes without saying that the earthy and adventure-filled THE TROUBLE BEGINS AT 8 will stir enthusiasm for reading the iconic books of the famous American author Mark Twain. It is a terrific Twain tale, a great American tale, that I -- having, myself, traveled westward as a young man to become an adopted child of the city by the Bay -- totally adored.

 

Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/

BudNotBuddy@aol.com

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