The world of men and boys had always felt foreign to me. I suspect one reason why is that I didn’t grow up with a brother. Even so, while I served in the military I thought myself attuned to the guys by virtue of being immersed in a masculine culture. But several years later when I had my son, my delusions about how well I understood the opposite sex were once and for all set straight: I didn’t get it. I could see that my son’s way of interacting with the world, from very young, was different from the way I did as a child, or the way my daughter would a few years later. My son liked to break things. He liked to get dirty. His version of a temper tantrum involved punching and hitting. I started to worry about how to discipline him, and turned to parenting books specific to raising boys. At some point my husband said, “If you want to understand boys, read Tom Sawyer.”
Of course there’s no parenting advice in Tom Sawyer, but book the boils down to a story about boyhood. Parents, authority figures, and girls feature only on the periphery of the boys’ adventures (with the slight exception of Tom’s love interest, Becky Thatcher). It’s telling to me that the boy disdained by the adults, the parentless Huckleberry Finn who roams the town, skips school, and dresses as he pleases, is the boy admired by all the other boys for his independence from social norms. And when Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and their friend Joe escape to an island to play pirate, I can’t help but see the similarities between this and real male diversions such hunting trips, bachelor parties, and even big projects at work. That’s because Tom and his friends become so engrossed in their fun that a few days pass before they realize that everyone at home is wondering where they are.
I think of Tom Sawyer as the idyllic boyhood adventure because it’s filled with real peril, love, bad guys, and practical jokes. It’s enlightened my understanding of my son’s perspective, and my husband’s for that matter. So anytime either of them is engrossed in something to the point that the rest of the world ceases to exist, I like to think of them as having gone off to play pirate.