Dec 7, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Before you bemoan once more the decline of the American family from those good old days pictured in The Reader's Digest, re-read Huckleberry Finn. There, a hundred years ago, underneath the wild cast of characters and their comic adventures, Mark Twain portrayed a Mississippi Valley littered with troubled families who would be right at home on today's talk shows.

There would have been no "Adventures" of Huckleberry Finn in the first place if Huck had not been forced to escape from an abusive father, and if Jim had not been a slave running from bondage. As they float down the Mississippi on their raft, their adventures consist entirely of attempts to belong, to find family. Huck pretends to be a girl, and is found out and returned to the raft, he and Jim fall into the middle of two families killing each other in a feud. Eventually, Huck pretends to be Tom Sawyer at the Phelps farm, and is found out again.

Only on the raft, as the boy and the black slave come to know and love each other, is there a momentary, tenuous family. At the end of the book, Huck lights out for the territory, going it alone in an America where he will never belong.

This view of the American family in trouble is not unique to Mark Twain. In 1826, Alexis De Tocqueville came to observe the new American culture, and was astounded to find that the restless American family moved an average of once every five years—as it does today. He said it was because we were materialists, every time we turned around, we saw a thousand new things we had to do before we died.

Harriet Beecher Stowe had a different explanation in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The evils of slavery that broke into the peaceful home of Uncle Tom in the opening of that novel spread out like ripples on water, leaving families white and black, north and south, sick and dying.

Whatever the reason or reasons, it has always been the case, even here in the heartland, that sometimes it gets so dark out that it is hard for us to find our ways home.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.