Narrative Non-Fiction Text #4- River Boy: The Story of Mark Twain

According to Wikipedia, “Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist. He is most noted for his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often called “the Great American Novel.” Mark Twain was born in the 19th century where slavery was taken place in the south. When Clemens was about four years old, his family relocated to Hannibal, Missouri. This was a slave state and Clemens became familiar with the institution of slavery and as a result, he pursued writing. Both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are usually must-reads for teenagers, especially in high school because of the history behind it. The stories use racial slurs and discuss controversial issues among slavery in it. Readers are able to get a sense of the author’s perspective with these stories as one can start to sympathize with the characters. One might say that that book starts to come alive with all the colorful detail and readers can imagine themselves during that era.

In the text, River Boy: The Story of Mark Twain by William Anderson, the author goes into depth about Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain’s life before he became a great novelist. This text is part of the narrative non-fiction genre since it is the biography of Mark Twain’s life. Indeed, children are not really exposed to Mark Twain’s famous novels until they are older, usually in high school since it is deemed appropriate based on their maturity. However in this text, readers get a glimpse of Clemens’ life. At the age of four, Clemens and his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri. Along the banks of the Mississippi River, Clemens witnessed steamboats chugging up and down the river. According to the author, “No one knew who or what might come off that boat.” Clemens dreamed of becoming a steamboat pilot. Readers are introduced to Clemens’ family and how they used to live in another town in Missouri called Florida. According to the text, Clemens’ mother told him that when he was born on November 30, 1835, a streak of white light traveled across the nighttime sky. It was Halley’s Comet and people would have to wait 76 more years to see that comet again. As Sam grew up, he was a mischievous boy and liked to play pranks on his family and friends. When children were being affected by measles in Hannibal, Sam jumped into a bed with a sick friend and he came down with the measles as well. When Sam went to school, he was considered as the school’s “best speller” but his real talent seemed to be getting into trouble. One day, Sam played hookey from school and took a bunch of his friends near the Mississippi River where they fished, built campfires, and digged turtle eggs. While exploring the river, Sam and his friends discovered the body of a runaway slave floating in the water. In addition, he also witnessed a bunch of slaves chained together waiting to be sent to work on the plantations. At the age of 12, Sam’s father passed and he went to work as an apprentice for the Hannibal Courier, a local newspaper. His work included delivering the newspaper, setting the typewriter, as well as running the printing press. He also got his big break working for the paper as he wrote three stories and he discovered new topics including the Mexican War. At 17, Sam wanted to go own his own adventures. His dream was to go to the Amazon River in South America but he didn’t have enough money until he found some money that flew from the sky. As a result, he fulfilled his dream as a steamboat driver and sailed along the Mississippi River. In 1861, the Civil War began and it interrupted Sam’s plans because sailing along the river was no longer safe. As a result, Sam decided to travel out to the west where he met a bunch of miners and planned to get rich by striking gold and silver. Sam enjoyed swapping tales with the miners and his story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County ” was published in newspapers all across America in 1865. Readers also get a glimpse of how Sam met a beautiful girl, named Livy. They eventually married and had three children. In 1874, Sam and his new family moved to Hartford, Connecticut where he used all the money he gained from his success to build a fancy home. It was here where Sam wrote his famous novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The characters in the story were based on the people he knew in his hometown, Hannibal. This book became so popular, he wrote the sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. An interesting fact was when that Sam died on April 21, 1910, and on that day appeared Halley’s comet.

In the text, the author mentions how Sam enjoyed playing pranks on his family as well as his friends. He loved being the center of attention. The author writes, “When he was older, Sam’s mother told him that he had given her much more trouble than the other children in the family. “I suppose you were afraid I wouldn’t live, Sam joked’.” The mother replied,
“No…afraid you would.” One can sense that the family was a bit sarcastic and fun. It seems like the family was a tight-knit family and that they looked for the best in each other. In addition, the author uses very descriptive imagery to capture emotions. The author writes, “While exploring the island, they made a shocking discovery-the body of a runaway slave floating in the water.” Readers can paint a picture in their mind with all the graphic details as many people including children have some background knowledge of slavery as well as the Civil War. Indeed, the book captures Sam aka Mark Twain’s life from when he was an infant to when he was an adult and one notices all the struggles he overcame to become the famous author he was.

As an aspiring teacher, I do have some background knowledge on slavery and have read Mark Twain’s famous novels while I was in high school. Therefore, I do know a little bit about Twain and his work which focuses on slavery. However, I was surprised at learning new material from this book. I didn’t know Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens and that he was depicted as a prankster. I learned that his goal was to be a steamboat driver and he did fulfill that dream as well as wrote for newspapers. I thought the book was a little dull in a sense, it wasn’t my cup of tea compared to the other books that I have read. I kind of found myself having to read and re-read it again. Usually, when I’m interested in a book, I can’t put it down. I thought the author could focused more on Sam’s pranks as that seemed to be lively and would probably be a little less grim than some of the details. I believe this book would be suitable for fourth graders to possibly sixth grade since the concept of slavery is a broad topic. I really feel the children should have some background knowledge of slavery and why it started before being introduced to the book. The children should understand how Sam was fascinated with this topic since slavery was taken place along the Mississippi River. However, children in elementary school should not read his famous novels as it is deemed inappropriate for their level.

While I was reading the book, some questions that arose in my head for the author were:

1. In the beginning of the book, Sam’s mother told her son that when he was born, “people peered through their windows to see Halley’s Comet.” When Sam died, the author states that on the day of his death, Halley’s Comet emerged. What made you chose this metaphor to describe Mark Twain’s life?

2. In the text, one notices how Sam enjoyed playing pranks on his friends and family but we as readers, are left hanging as the text only mentions one prank. What other pranks did Sam play on his friends and family?

3. In the text, the author mentions that Civil War broke out and that Sam was no longer able to ride the steamboat along the banks of the river because “i

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About krazzykatty85

For several years, I used to work as a journalist for a prestigious newspaper. A couple of years later, I changed careers and am going to be a teacher. These days you can find me purchasing materials for my future students that I hope to use in my classroom as well as creating engaging lesson plans while trying to have a life. When life gives you lemons, always make lemonade!

One response to “Narrative Non-Fiction Text #4- River Boy: The Story of Mark Twain

  1. Elisabeth Johnson

    Katherine,

    I thought this choice balanced out your others and moved beyond NYC in an interesting way. I could easily see this being a useful text in a middle or high school classroom with students reading Mark Twain’s work (as background info that’s quickly and easily digestible). I’m not sure most children (or people period) have very accurate pictures of Civil War life, so don’t think you could rely on such background to build on if you were to incorporate this into the classroom. That being said, what images or brief videos or texts might you bring in to build context for reading Mark Twain’s biography in the elementary classroom? I would still like to see your big summaries get shorter and/or break up into smaller paragraphs. They’re hard to read online and I can get bogged down in the twists and turns.

    Dr. Johnson

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