Huckleberry Finn, arguably Mark Twain’s most enduring creation, is enshrined in the pantheon of classic American novels, his name a byword for lovable scamps. Mt. Washington’s Tim DeRoche, who still reads “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” every couple of years, says he’d been considering how to adapt Twain’s story — initially as a movie — when, after kayaking through Glendale Narrows with wife Simone, the idea of setting the story on the LA River started to gel. (Full disclosure: DeRoche and his family are longtime friends of this writer.)
“You could imagine Huck Finn escaping down the LA River instead of the Mississippi River, although those two rivers are obviously very, very different,” he explains. “I tried to see Los Angeles through the eyes of this kid from Missouri, and it was just a really fun thing to do. Then when I met Daniel and decided to work with him on the art, it was this new, completely other fun adventure.”
As Huck himself might say, DeRoche’s new book “The Ballad of Huck & Miguel” is a right “bully” read, with linocut drawings by Highland Park artist Daniel González that convey the gritty, sometimes mythic texture of contemporary Los Angeles. As a storyteller, DeRoche says he felt fortunate to collaborate with a sympatico artist whose “big, cinematic compositions” heighten the “sense of stakes.” Many of González’s pieces depict inhabitants and details of the natural environment in which Missouri boy Huck suddenly finds himself after his monstrously abusive, bigoted Pap drives them to LA and gets snared in a violent drug deal.
Along with Tom Sawyer and his clever Aunt Polly (a lawyer, in this telling), the thieving Duke, the feuding Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons (refashioned as reality TV show clans), and other sharply delineated characters from Twain’s 1885 narrative make memorable appearances. The most fully realized of Huck’s friends is the kind, steady Miguel, an undocumented immigrant who is a 21st-century counterpart to Twain’s runaway slave Jim. Narrating in Huck’s voice, DeRoche’s vivid language suggests the flavor of Twain’s text while avoiding caricaturing the characters he unabashedly loves.
“We could leave the river, but there was lots of people looking for us and we’d be more likely to run into the ’thorities. Or we could stay down on the river and take our chances that we might bump into old Pap again. It warn’t a good choice at all. But that’s how it is sometime. You don’t always got no choice about what choices you got to make. And if you don’t make a choice, that’s just the same as making one anyway. So there’s no easy way to get out of it, ’cept by doing the best you can.”
“Early on in this project I was talking to Laura Trombley, the former president of the Huntington Library who’s also a Twain scholar, and she said, ‘Huck Finn, the original, is not about slavery, it’s not about race; it’s about an abused kid looking for a safe haven.’ I really liked that idea. It resonated with me and gave me a clue as to why I like Huck Finn so much, and why I like him both in Twain’s original and in this update. The place he finds that safe haven is in Miguel, in this immigrant. Miguel is the hero of the story. I wanted to get those characters right, and I wanted the language they use to help the reader identify with them and bond with them.”
In Twain’s original, Huck’s conscience is awakened by racial injustice. DeRoche says he started writing “The Ballad of Huck & Miguel” before “the whole Trump phenomenon,” but he was certainly thinking about America’s immigration policy as he developed Miguel’s backstory and his relationship with the “incredibly resilient” Huck.
“The analogy between slavery and immigration is, you know, how can you be a good man on the wrong side of the law in the 1800s? Well, if you’re an escaped slave. How can you be a good man on the wrong side of the law in modern-day America? Well, if you’re an undocumented immigrant. It provides a source of drama, and it creates some of the suspense that you need as a storyteller.”
Further drama is provided by a drum-beating religious group called the Flock and an eerie vision of La Llorona. Owls, raccoons and other nocturnal “critters” make Huck’s experience of a magical realm come alive as he and Miguel navigate the concrete-walled river beneath stars and the lights of Downtown LA “skyscratchers.” Attentive local readers may recognize certain canals and wooded spaces that provide cover for the duo as they elude Pap.
“The LA River kind of functions as an underworld for the city, and it’s this fascinating, wild place that not a lot of people have direct experience of,” says DeRoche, who “hiked or biked the entire length of the river” from Calabasas to Long Beach to ensure he stayed true to the river and the city’s geography. He even mapped out where key plot points occur. “There are folks living down there, there are wild animals living down there, and then there are the soft-bottom portions that are just gorgeous and feel more like a traditional river.”
He says he hopes his kids read his book someday —after they read Twain’s original. Writing can be a “solitary, lonely pursuit,” he notes, but writing “The Ballad of Huck & Miguel” was a joy.
“Every day I was sitting down at my computer and I was having a conversation with Mark Twain about the city of Los Angeles, the city I love. He’s a fascinating person to have a conversation with.”
Book launch party with author Tim DeRoche and illustrator Daniel González for “The Ballad of Huck & Miguel” at the Last Bookstore, 453 S. Spring St. Downtown LA, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18; free admission, but 10 percent of book sale proceeds will benefit Friends of the LA River. Info: (213) 488-0599. DeRoche and González will also speak at Glendale’s Downtown Central Library, 222 E. Harvard St., Glendale, 7-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28; free admission. Timderoche.com, printgonzalez.com, Lastbookstorela.com