Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Trouble Begins at 8 by Sid Fleischman

"Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth."

So begins Chapter 1 of The Trouble Begins at 8. What? Fully grown? How can that be? And a cheap cigar? Huh? Readers will be engaged from the start, questions quickly forming about Mark Twain, no doubt an author many of them are being "forced" to read in school. An author who, if students are given the opportunity and proper resources, may prove to be equally as interesting as the classic American literature he created.

In the preceding preface, Sid Fleischman offers other intriguing anecdotes. A Nevada minor once introduced Mark Twain by saying, “I don’t know anything about this man. I only know two things about him. One is, he has never been in jail. And the other is, I don’t know why.” Later Fleischman reveals the inspiration for the book’s title. Twain’s first posters advertising his speaking engagements “proclaimed that the doors would open at seven. ‘The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.’”

Sid Fleischman does his best to separate the fact from the fiction in Mark Twain’s life, a task in which Twain himself apparently didn’t put too much stock. His autobiography, as noted numerous times, included certain exaggerations and/or additions as well as more than a few exclusions.

The book begins with young Samuel Clemens’ first work in newspaper, where he published a banner headline declaring “TERRIBLE ACCIDENT! 500 men killed and missing!!!” followed by, in smaller type, “We had set the above head up, expecting (of course) to use it, but as the accident hasn’t happened, yet, we’ll say (To be continued.)” He also started a feud with the editor of the local competition, accusing him of “failing to drink himself to death.”

The story continues following Samuel’s life as a riverboat captain, his two weeks in the military, his travel west to Nevada, more work in newspaper, his dabblings in fiction, and the next (and the next and the next...) get-rich-quick scheme. He travels the world and creates imaginary travel companions, passing them off as real. Slowly but surely readers witness the death of Samuel Clemens and the birth of Mark Twain.

Each story is as funny as the next, and each reads as a bit of humor concocted by the man himself. Teachers, get yourself a copy of this book and be sure to use it alongside Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Young readers will enjoy this creatively written story about Mark Twain as much as any story by Mark Twain.

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