Huckleberry Finn

Two sisters came bearing birthday gifts for Jackie today; first Shelly this morning; then Elizabeth this afternoon – also bringing scones, butter, and jam.

We enjoyed convivial conversations.

Between visits I finished reading and scanning the illustrations to Mark Twain’s iconic novel.

After dining on Ashleigh’s fish and chips; Heinz baked beans; Mrs Elswoods’s pickled gherkins; and Garner’s pickled onions, I reviewed the book, of which this is the illustrated title page:

In a journey with his older friend Jim along the Mississippi River, itself a major character in the book, Huck Finn spends every effort to carry the runaway slave to freedom. Both man and boy seek freedom, peace, and comfort. Huck has been adopted by a woman wishing to convert him from his carefree lifestyle to a more traditional middle class one; the “nigger” Jim wants to own himself rather than be valued at $800 to someone else, although he feels that is where he belongs.

They take off together on a raft, meeting various adventures involving a violent village where a lethal vendetta rages, and a man of public position is able to shoot another dead; a generous, friendly family; a gang hunting runaway slaves; a commercial vessel prepared to run down their boat. On each occasion Jim was forced to hide while Huck reconnoitred the scenes.

The story is a plea for non-violence, and above all an exposure of how the negro slaves are regarded as property to be bought and sold. As such we are shown that certain attitudes have not progressed in the intervening century and a half since the original 1883 publication. There have been a number of attempts in the 20th and 21st centuries to ban the book.

Written in the vernacular of the unlettered eponymous protagonist and the tongue of his black friend, the fluid prose of the book follows the calms and the storms of the river along which they travel. “Pretty soon it darkened up and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never seen the wind blow so. It was one of those regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the tree off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest – fst! it was a bright as glory and you’d have a little glimpse of treetops a-plunging about, away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you’d hear the thunder let go with an awful crash and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know” also gives examples of Twain’s simile and metaphor.

Colin Ward’s knowledgeable introduction is well written and helpful.

The pages including Harry Brockway’s muscular wood engravings contain further examples of Twain’s prose.

The header picture is of the boards and spine of my Folio Society edition.


Today I finished reading

This is the second of John Prebble’s two histories of the demise of the way of life of the Scottish Highlands.

The author’s exemplary research and lively prose gives plentiful detail of the decisive battle of Culloden and its aftermath.

The picture is well amplified by the characterful wood engravings of Harry Brockway, the first of which features Alexander MacDonald of Keppel, an early clan leader casualty as the frontispiece.

Beginning with the organised march from Nairn to Culloden of the Royalist army and the gathering of the tired and hungry clans, in the harshest highland weather, we learn exactly what it was like for ordinary soldiers in particular preparing for battle in all kinds of freezing precipitation across boggy, rocky terrain. The reality of battle was even more dreadful.

Drummers woke and led the Redcoat soldiers,

while pipers like Ian Beg spurred the Rebel army

We are told of the Lowlanders and some Clansmen with axes to grind against the Highlanders; and Highlanders, like

Charles Stewart of Ardshiel, drawn into the conflict because of scores to settle with Royalist adherents, such as the Campbells.

Gilles MacBean was one of many who, fatally wounded, crawled away to die in the harsh undergrowth.

Although it was William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland who enjoyed the fame, and epithet “Butcher”, the hands-on commander responsible for the dreadful aftermath, details of which his own leader seemed content not to know too much about, was

Major General Henry Hawley.

The Highland capital of Inverness was occupied by the Redcoat army, from where they they searched the highlands for fleeing Rebels, laid waste the terrain, looted, destroyed and burnt highlanders homes, until a line of soldiers formed along the shore of Loch Ness carved a cleft across the north. The remaining clansmen rooted out were imprisoned in appalling circumstances, including the holds of ships which transported many to America and the West Indies.

Anne McKay, despite days of torture, refused to betray a group of Jacobites.

Murdoch McRaw was the last man hanged for alleged spying.

Samuel Kelsell received 2,000 lashes of the Cat o’ Nine Tails spread over 10 sessions for stealing 15 sheep.

Stewart Carmichael of Bonnyhaugh was the only man to escape from the Tilbury transports.

Cumberland was fĂȘted in England on his return.


Watching the TV series “Outlander” has prompted me to revisit my Folio Society set of John Prebble’s histories of Glencoe and Culloden, starting with

which details the history of deception, deceit, age-old clan rivalry, betrayal, Royal prevarication, and “Murder under trust”

We learn of the mutual disloyalty of neighbours, their leaders prepared, in their own personal interest, to change allegiance according to which King of England seemed worthy of their support, depending on the way the wind blew. Clansmen were accordingly prepared to don the Redcoats uniforms and fight against their own kind.

This, however, was not a fight. It was the slaughter of unarmed men, their wives, and their children, dragged from their beds by soldiers armed with muskets and bayonets.

King William ignored what was to happen, and King James II prevaricated through indecision. The Lairds who were responsible for the decision passed this down the line and ultimately denied responsibility. The action for which the troops were gathering was kept from them until the last minute.

Fundamentally this could also be seen as a day of reckoning between the Campbells and the MacDonalds. It also fuelled the fire for the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

Prebble’s research is thorough; his detailed prose readable, with an ability to convey the life, the, action, and the atmosphere of the time. We feel the horror, and the anger at how it has come about.

Helpful appendices, including Principle Characters and Chronologies help us keep track, especially as I, for example, couldn’t hope to retain all the names, in their various versions, as in the earlier histories.

The author’s own introduction puts all in perspective.

Harry Brockway’s engravings capture the essential characteristics of the various personnel.

The frontispiece features Alasdair Og and John MacDonald, sons of MacIain.

Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon is next;

then Sir John Dalrymple, Master of Stair;

Archibald Campbell, 10th Earl, 1st Duke of Argyll;

Captain John Hill, Governor of Fort William;

Sir John Campbell, 11th Laird of Glenorchy, 1st Earl of Breadalbane;

James II;

Alasdair MacDonald, 12th Chief of Glencoe;

William III.

Bean Nighe, a supernatural washerwoman, who foretold death, was seen on the eve.

Duncan Rankin was the first man killed, swimming to escape.

Murdoch Matheson, after listening to the action, wrote a well remembered lament.

A two year old boy who survived with the loss of a little finger, grew to lead members of his clan at Culloden.