The Boy in His Winter by Norman Lock. New York: Bellevue Literary Press. 188 pages. ISBN: 978-1-934137-76-5. $14.95 paper
The first decade and-a-half of 21st century film will be remembered as the era of the “reload.” Established characters and franchises have been reimagined and reinvented to the point where the audience expects the story to be reset once the credits roll. The practice has produced mixed results, with some films being vital additions to franchises while others are bemoaned as horrible mistakes. The reload and its cousin the universe expansion have been in practice in comic books for decades. The reimagining of established tales in literature is also nothing new – think of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid as one of the first reloads / universe expansions – but contemporary literary fiction has not responded to classic works in the American canon as vigorously as in other mediums.
Norman Lock steps into this void with The Boy in His Winter. The novel is an ambitious response to Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn. Lock’s story is told by an old Huck, near the end of his life, from the year 2077. The novel is divided into three parts: July 2, 1835 – August 29, 2005; August 29, 2005 – September 11, 2005; and September 12, 2005 – March 15, 2077. The story involves time travel, a sweeping view of American history, and an imagined future. The novel is also an attempt to find identity in the face of history, first as a member of a nation, a society, and a race, and then as an individual crafting a personal narrative within such borders. The novel succeeds in several of these areas not fully realizing its potential in others.
The novel begins with Huck Finn and Jim on their raft in the Missouri section of the Mississippi River. They soon discover that the river is not only taking them southward but forward into the future. The raft is a seemingly timeless space, in which they do not age but the areas they pass through do. Huck and Jim go from 1835 to 1960 together, and Huck then travels alone to 2005 where the raft is destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Stranded in the early 21st century, the thirteen year-old Finn must adapt to his adopted century. Once the raft is destroyed, Huck ages as a normal man, living until 2077.
There are many instances of Huck and Jim getting off the raft and interacting the world. They experience the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War. They learn about jazz from a stranded musician. Huck discovers a copy of Huckleberry Finn, and finds Twain’s account of his life to be exaggerated. In part he tells this story to correct the record that Twain falsely marked – and he holds the American author in contempt for the remainder of his lengthy life.
Huck reconnects with Tom Sawyer twice – once when Tom is a young Confederate soldier and later as an octogenarian. Readers can readily accept time travel, but it is a stretch to expect them to believe that both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer could survive to be old men, considering their propensity for mischief in the violent world of 19th century Mississippi River life.
This small detail raises an issue with the novel, which is how effortlessly Huck adapts to moving from 1835 to 2005. His first exposure to electric lights is not frightening or even surprising. He flips through color magazines. He admits to no schooling nor understanding of physics or mechanics, but boat engines and other modern forms of transportation do not disturb him. Jim is just as unmoved; for example, in 1960 he buys a bus ticket and is unaffected by the vehicles idling in the depot. Huck is overcome by seeing George Méliès’ short film A Trip to the Moon, but the experience is more sublime than stunning. The one thing that truly does surprise him is the pump pedal of a 21st century barber’s chair – but the electric clippers that shear off his hair do not raise concern. Planes flying overhead are never mentioned, and modern river fleets are never encountered, even as Huck sails into 2005.
Responding to Twain’s Finn requires Lock to address issues that have shrouded the original novel in controversy. The first is that of dialect. Lock does not retain the speech of Twain’s work; instead, Huck gives himself and Jim the same sophisticated voice he uses to narrate the entire novel. Huck acknowledges that the reader doesn’t believe that they spoke in this manner, but since it is his story then he can make Jim speak the way he wants. Huck explains that Jim’s speech reflects his character, which he holds in high regard, and also points to the reality that none of us in old age can remember exactly how we spoke early in life. We filter our memories through the present, and recalling exactly the words we would have used at thirteen is almost impossible – especially when stretched out over 242 years.
This explanation works as far as dialect is concerned, but it does not fully address the issue of race. This challenge is much more complicated. Issues of race have produced volumes of academic criticism as well as major social discussions about the place of Huckleberry Finn in American culture. Lock does not avoid the racism underlying the original, having Huck wrestle with the issue of Jim as a slave and the nature of their relationship. Jim is clearly the most important person in Huck’s life from any of the centuries he experiences, yet he has to confront the fact that for their actual time together he saw Jim as inferior because of his race. Finn acknowledges that his beliefs were the ideas of his time, but he does not use them as a justification. He was wrong, and his regrets seep into the story long after Jim is gone. Huck’s relationship to Jim is a key part of who he is.
The relationship with Jim also raises the question of how individuals relate to their present and past. Huck realizes that he was complicit in the system that oppressed Jim. It also makes the readers ponder what systems we are complicit in now. We have to question what we really would have done in a different time period instead of what we like to believe we would have done. It is easier and preferable to take the high ground, because it doesn’t force us to ask of ourselves any real, substantive questions about who we think we are. Lock forces Huck – and by extension each of us – to ask these hard questions.
The discussion of race continues throughout the second and third sections of the novel, as Huck becomes a member of the 21st century. He tries to find a surrogate for Jim in the form of James, the Trinidadian pilot of the drug smuggling vessel that rescues him from Katrina. Later, Huck sees Jim in Jameson Tarn, an African-American illustrator of children’s books who eventually becomes his wife. In Tarn the issue of race is raised only slightly, and could have been more thoroughly addressed in the speculative future in which Lock places Huck.
The voice is both a strength and weakness for the novel. The language never comes across as believable for Huck Finn. Despite many attempts at justification by Huck, I never could accept that he was truly telling this story. The voice is consistent and strong. It is excellently written – it just may not belong in the mouth of Huckleberry Finn. The voice also is largely devoid of emotion. It comes across as that of a scientist, a cold and indifferent observer, even in life-altering moments of joy, mourning, and horror. While there is some character justification for this style, it further separates the narrator from the idea of Huck Finn and the character he claims to be. Despite this criticism, the book is a wonderful meditation on the struggle to dovetail one’s present self with the one’s past. Three centuries of history is a surrogate for Huck; he really is wrestling with who is in relation to who he was decade after decade. The Boy in His Winter is really about the meaning of the past and finding one’s place in relation to it.