Huck holds up a mirror to nation of fugitives

April 15, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

No wonder they've made eight or nine movies out of "Huckleberry Finn." Mark Twain's novel deals with that most American of themes.

Justice? Freedom? Truth? No.

"Huckleberry Finn" is about running away, and running away is as American as:

"The Catcher in the Rye," "On the Road," "Route 66," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "The Glass Menagerie" and the late Del Shannon walking along, wondering what went wrong, a-run-run-run-run-runaway.

We are a nation of runaways, from the Pilgrims to the pioneers to the Underground Railroad to Ellis Island to the boat people. Samuel Clemens, who left his home in Hannibal, Mo., at age 17, was definitely on to something. He even ran away from his name, and by the time he wrote "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in the 1880s, he'd become famous as Mark Twain.

As Laurence Mark, producer of the latest Huck film, "The Adventures of Huck Finn," puts it, "Huck was living the life that we all in some way wish we could live -- if only for a spell."

Only for a spell. That's the key.

That and knowing there'll be a happy ending. Nowadays, said Dr. Patricia Weissman, a child development specialist at the Merrill-Palmer Institute of Wayne State University in Detroit, "you have to make the distinction between innocent forays into autonomy and a kid who's really crying out for help and fleeing an abusive situation."

We're dealing here with those innocent forays youngsters might try between ages 7 and 11.

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who coined the term "identity crisis," calls that period "middle childhood," Dr. Weissman said. "It's a time for learning cultural skills; it's when children learn how to read, how to write, how to add."

In middle childhood, youngsters also acquire some "adult skills," such as how to read a map, how to take a bus. They generally receive an allowance and learn how to use money.

From all that, Dr. Weissman said, "Kids develop a sense of competence. . . . Running away is an expression of their competence, that they have newly discovered abilities to manage in an adult way."

She recalled a girl who was 8 years old and whose family had justmoved to a suburb several miles from their old neighborhood. She wasn't happy about it, but the day she decided to visit her old friends, it was snowing hard and her mother wouldn't drive her. The girl threw a fit and set off on foot into the storm.

"During this time," said Dr. Weissman, "the child's self-concept is becoming more clearly defined. To feel good about yourself, you have to feel that you're competent, and you have to feel some power. If you feel powerless, you don't feel good about yourself."

"Wow, am I cool," the little girl thought to herself. But she had gone about a mile by then, and tears were running down her cold cheeks. A woman looked out her window, noticed the girl and enticed her inside by inviting her to see a pony, which was actually a big dog.

Another event that occurs in middle childhood is that "the child becomes less egocentric and a lot more aware of the outside world," Dr. Weissman said, citing the thinking of Jean Piaget.

A child discovers then "that authorities aren't always right. This is a revelation to the child."

Sometimes children take this concept too far, though. "Once a parent or a teacher or some other authority figure makes a mistake, the child latches on and says, 'This adult is an idiot and has no authority.' "

This in turn leads to something called "cognitive conceit," Dr. Weissman said. Children believe that "once they're right, they're always right. They have confidence in their own cleverness."

Once the child was safely inside, the woman with the big dog called the police. Mother and daughter were quickly reunited.

Although she can understand the reasons for it, Dr. Weissman said, "I am not in any way endorsing children running away."

Her opinion has changed since the time, 29 years ago, when she took off in the middle of a blizzard to see her old friends.

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