Everyone, from my college advisor on down, will tell you I love tales with orphan heroes. You name them: Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Tensy Farlow, the Baudelaire children, I fell in love with each and every one of those books. (Well, I hated the ending of the Baudelaire series, but that’s another story.) The thing is, there are orphans and then there are orphans and they aren’t really alike. To explain what I mean, look at one of the most famous kid books to come out of the 19th century: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
You can’t get past the first page without learning Tom’s parental status. Aunt Polly’s first soliloquy says, “he’s my own sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him.” So, Tom is an orphan but he doesn’t really fit the mold. Orphan heroes are usually vulnerable kids who miss the love and security of a stable home. They tend to grow up fast because they have to and any tendency toward mischief has been knocked right out of them. Can you think of anyone less like that than Tom Sawyer?
Tom and his siblings may be orphans but they’ve never lacked a home or love because of the redoubtable Aunt Polly. (Twain describes her as old but I’ll bet Aunt Polly’s not that much past thirty; living with Tom ages a woman). Because of this secure grounding, Tom’s a king in his own home town. He struts around, confident of his place in the world, bossing other boys or showing off for Becky Thatcher. The world is his and he knows it. Of course, Tom’s chutzpah is another reason to like the brat (His explanation for forcing patent medicine down the cat’s throat is almost as funny as the cat’s reaction) but he doesn’t fit the mold of an orphan does he?
His side-kick, Huck does. Huckleberry Finn is a pariah among the respectable citizens of Saint Petersburg. He wears rags and calls no shelter home. Some nights, he probably goes to sleep hungry. But Huck Finn is not an orphan, at least not in this book. Pap, Huck’s father is the town drunk and although he’s abandoned his son, the town assumes a living parent keeps a child from needing aid.
Huck and Tom complement each other but either one would tell you, Tom’s always the leader. He’s the one who decides they should search for treasure or what Pirate Names they should have. Huck is the logistics man, finding and lifting the tools and going along with the game. In his own novel, Huck shows he’s pretty good at coming up with ideas on his own and he’s even better at executing them but all of Huck’s projects are a means to a practical end. Unlike Tom, he never starts something, for the “glory” of it. Huck is a serious boy in a serious world and in his own book, he shows true nobility. But by then, Huck is really an orphan.
In the end, there is no choice between these two wonderful characters. But as Mark Twain, himself wrote, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the history of a boy and he ended it before it became the history of a man. Tom, with the security of his home and family has the limitations and and irresponsibility of a boy and, despite his daring and adventures, a boy is what he remains. Huck Finn, after years of isolation and freedom finds the structures of civilization hard to abide. The true orphan is more than half way to becoming completely grown.