The mighty Mississippi has spawned many a mighty tale, but few as famous as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Although now it’s required reading in most schools, when Mark Twain first published it in 1884, some didn’t consider the book’s discussion of slavery and racism such a charming tale.
Now, Tim DeRoche, a writer in Los Angeles, wants Huck to weave us a tale again, but with some modern-day twists. “I wanted to do it in a way that honored the original but that still added something new and that would be fun,” DeRoche said.
In Twain’s version, Huck was fleeing his abusive alcoholic father, and along the way hooks up with a slave named Jim, also on the run.
In DeRoche’s re-telling, Huck remains the same troublesome teen from Missouri, but his companion has more modern-day woes to run from: immigration authorities. “What an escaped slave and an undocumented immigrant have in common is they are good men on the wrong side of the law,” he said.
Together, an abused American boy and a hard-working father from Mexico join forces for a series of adventures that DeRoche first thought up while kayaking down a river – one that runs right through the heart of downtown L.A.
“Huck Finn had an adventure on this incredible thoroughfare, the Mississippi, that runs down the middle of the country. Well, what about this river? What would an adventure look like on this river?”
Now, the Los Angeles River is no Mississippi – in fact some see it as nothing more than a concrete gash through urban sprawl. But DeRoche saw something else.
“People think it’s just a ditch,” he said. “But I think it’s a lot more than a ditch. I mean, you get down here and you just see swallows flying overhead, you see herons hiding in the bushes. It can be quite a wild place.”
He calls his tale “The Ballad of Huck & Miguel,” and like the original, DeRoche channels Huck’s distinctive vernacular.
“This here is the full true story of how I left St. Petersburg for California and went on the run from authorities with a real live illegal Mexigrant. Me and Miguel had a right bully adventure on that concrete river in Los Angeles, which might be the biggest city that ever was.”
Huck and his raft make plenty of stops along the L.A. River, including one that lands him smack in the middle of a Hollywood reality show. It’s not the Kardashians, but something close.
“The cameras was there for a TV show that was all about the Grangerfords. They called it ‘Galavanting With the Grangerfords’ – and everybody was monstrous proud of how many million people watched every week.”
Correspondent Lee Cowan asked, “Was the reality television part particularly fun to write?”
“Just to riff on that a little bit, to riff on popular culture from the point of view of this hick kid, it was fun, yeah,” DeRoche said.
To help bring Miguel alive, DeRoche turned to Los Angeles native Daniel González. “Miguel was kind of a composite of many people in my life – my uncle, my grandfather, a lot of different people,” González said.
His family came here undocumented; his girlfriend is currently an immigration lawyer. González himself is an artist. His illustrations for the book depict a love of place – the city that raised him, and the river that was his backyard.
“It was an easy leap between Tim’s writing and creating these images,” González said.
“Because you know the river so well, were ideas just popping into your head right away?” Cowan asked.
“Right, yeah, I just had to tap into that sense of wonderment that I had as a kid,” he replied.
His art is old school. It’s called lino-cut; González carves the images into a piece of linoleum, then uses ink and a press to put the image on paper.
There are more than 40 illustrations of Huck’s L.A. in the book, each one along a different stretch of the L.A. River.
González said, “There’s many worlds that live right next to each other, and crossing that street or crossing that bridge, or going into a different space can just completely transform your perception of the city.”
What Twain taught, and Tim DeRoche learned, is that the world through a child’s eyes can be, in Huck’s vernacular, “monstrous insightful.”
Which gets us back to that L.A. River. While it may look like a ditch to some, with some child-like innocence and wonder it can be a place as adventurous as the Mississippi, and beyond.
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Story produced by John Goodwin.