Last night, I was lying in bed with Kalley and she picked up a Barbie book to read. I was shocked.
I usually only allow Barbie stories in our house if someone has a fever. Since no one is currently sick, it was an obvious smuggling job. In a moment of uncharacteristic generosity, I decided to overlook the breach of protocol and give Barbie a chance.
On the first page, Barbie is a shy girl who spends too much time reading and wishes she could be good at stuff like singing, dancing and being pretty. She decides she needs “magic” to attain all of her dreams. I saw where this was going. One page in, I flung Barbie across the room and said, “Enough!! Bring me Huck Finn!” Corbett happily obeyed.
I don’t read this book to them yet, but we look at the pictures and I tell them what’s going on. They love to hear about the boy whose drunk father locks him in a cabin that has no windows. To escape from this horrible father, Huck searches the cabin and finds an old rusty saw hidden under a rafter. He secretly works to cut a hole in wall, and is able to escape. He has to kill a wild pig and fake his own death so his awful father won’t try to find him. He gets away in a canoe, and ends up living in a cave! on an island! with a runaway slave named Jim. And it only gets better.
Huck and Jim sometimes find rattlesnakes in their cave. And once Huck kills one, puts it in Jim’s bed to scare him, and the mate of the snake comes and curls around the dead snake’s body. So instead of just getting scared, Jim gets bit and almost dies. Little girls love this stuff.
Corbett and Kalley are delighted when I tell them about how the island floods and all the land animals crawl up into the trees and live there together. And how Huck and Jim paddle all over in their canoe and look up at bunnies and chipmunks and opossums all living in the once-high branches of trees. Now they want to live on a flooded island someday and I hope they do.
The girls and I talked about why Huck and Jim could only travel at night, about who Jim is running from, and what will happen to him if he is caught. We talked about why the paramount aspiration of his life is to someday be able to buy (“Mommy, did you say, ‘BUY’?!”) his family. I explained to my kids that Jim’s wife and children are PROPERTY that he hopes to PURCHASE. It’s good to lie in bed with your family and think about that for a moment. This story makes us imagine what it would be like to be OWNED.
We stayed on one particular picture last night. In it, Huck is sitting on the raft, slumped over. He looks dismal, bereft, sorry. The caption says, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself.” I put it in context for the girls.
I explained that Huck had played a trick on Jim and, in doing so, had insulted his true friend. Jim was hurt. And Huck knew that he had been wrong. If he had done something like that to Tom Sawyer, his white friend, he would have apologized immediately. But because Jim was black, Huck was utterly perplexed. To apologize to a black person would be to acknowledge that his feelings were just as real as a white person’s. And this was unlike anything that Huck had been taught all of his life. He sat on the raft, staring at the water, wondering how to reconcile his heart with his head. This new idea, that a black man may possibly feel as deeply as a white man, caused him to question the principles he had breathed in all of his life. He finally apologizes to Jim. This is huge. In doing so, he rejects the known path to righteousness and recklessly chooses a new standard of integrity.
Corbett, Kalley and I laid there in bed and wondered: how could white people think that black people didn’t have the same feelings? Corbett said, “It’s like they thought black people weren’t real PEOPLE.”
Lying in bed with my girls, I realized I was indebted to Mark Twain for bringing unvarnished truths into our bedtime conversation.
Barbie has been shipped off to the library from whence she came. We have no need for her “magic” and desolate ideals. Life is too short to waste time on the wrong stories.