Huck Finn and Jim set out from Hannibal, Mo. on a July afternoon in 1835 aboard a raft. But this is not Mark Twain’s tale: In Norman Lock’s brief and brilliant fabulist novel The Boy in His Winter, Huck and Jim sweep down the Mississippi toward the Gulf of Mexico as though in a dream, caught in mythic time. “We were held in the mind of the river, like a thought,” Lock writes.
Huck narrates from the perspective of old age, in 2077, questioning all the way, acknowledging early on that while he is writing a time-travel novel, he has “no adequate theory to explain why the raft was able to travel through time. The water at the river’s source, Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, was also traveling into the future. For all I know, it may go on forever and, with it, the piece of river that had seized our raft and held us fast in timelessness.”
Like his short stories which Lock has called “fables of identity, parables of self-consciousness, and tales of the marvelous,” this novel shimmers with glorious language, fluid rhythms, and complex insights.
Early on, after Jim hooks a yellow perch, he and Huck drift to sleep, awaking at climactic moments. In 1850 the raft is frozen in place “with a noise like needles knitting” and they are iced in for the winter below St. Louis. Later they pass Vicksburg, as the Union siege is just succeeding. When they reach Baton Rouge, they enter the 20th century, but Huck is still thirteen.
As the raft meanders along, following Huck’s memories, Lock describes the “alphabet of suffering,” inscribed on Jim’s back, Huck’s envy of Jim’s companionship with a jazz musician named Henry, who comes aboard in 1919 (he introduces them to the word “lynched”) and the fateful moment in 1960 when Jim leaves the raft, after 125 years.
The real story, Lock writes, is “what happened to Jim,” a “dirty stinking horror — a tragedy, if you like the word — that gave me nightmares and disgust for my kind.” That’s the story Twain could never know. And it’s a story Huck ponders through the rest of his narrative, especially after August 2005, when he leaves the river and returns to real time during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina: “Time broke over me like an enormous wave, and I was overthrown by its weight and finality,” he muses.
By reconceptualizing Twain’s 1884 Adventures of Huck Finn to include three centuries — from slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and onwards — Lock raises questions about why we struggle still with the notions of freedom and justice. The “Territory” Huck lit out for in 1835 has developed, Lock writes, into “a nation of pleasure seekers; not all, of course, but enough to form a constituency with strength to pervert the virtues of democracy.”
The Boy in His Winter is a glorious meditation on justice, truth, loyalty, story, and the alchemical effects of love, a reminder of our capacity to be changed by the continuously evolving world “when it strikes fire against the mind’s flint,” and by profoundly moving novels like this. [Copyright 2014 NPR]