Monday, December 1

The Trouble Begins at 8

A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West
by Sid Fleischman
Greenwillow / HarperCollins 2008

Mark Twain was a self-made man. Fleishman acknowledges this when he beings this biography of the writer's early years by laying his birth date as some time in the fall of 1865. This, of course, is around the time that the man from Hannibal, Missouri officially used the pen name Mark Twain while writing travelogues during the California Gold Rush. For this point Fleishman backtracks a bit to sketch in the life of Sam Clemens up to that moment he became Mark Twain and then continues forward from there to when Twain first became famous as a humorist on the lecture circuit.

It's an entertaining and breezy read though at times it falls flat in the telling. It seems at times that Fleishman is attempting to give the text a folksy patina, perhaps an homage in imitation to Twain's narrative style, but it seems long-winded at best and feels unsourced at worst. Not that Fleishman hasn't done his research and claimed his sources - no, no, it's all there in the appendices - but that the narrative flourishes almost beg challenge.

Still, Sam felt himself to have entered a paradise of solitude and untouched scenery and deliverance from care. The greatest human achievement to behold was the breathless glimpse of the lone and unarmed Pony Express rider, carrying mail through Indian country on his eight-day dash across eighteen hundred miles of the wild West to Sacramento.

The young boy in me reading that passage says "Oh, come on!" while the adult me wonders whether it was Twain who found the Pony Express the greatest human achievement or Fleishman editorializing in his own breathless text. Yes, there's a lot of text like that, and were Twain's life any less entertaining the book would immediately bog down in the swirl of it all.

Still, for the middle grader reader looking for a little more depth than most biographies on Twain aimed at their level, or for the younger reader reading up, this is a serviceable overview of how Twain came to be Twain.
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