Huck Finn Inspired Storytelling by Caroline Starr Rose
When I started working on my latest novel, Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, I knew I wanted to write about the Klondike Gold Rush. I’d first stumbled upon this bit of history while researching the frontier for my novel, May B. Here was a larger-than-life event that had driven the world into gold-fever frenzy, and I hardly knew anything about it. This unforgiving, sub-Arctic corner of Canada teemed with danger and adventure. A story just begged to be written. I let the idea percolate in the back of my mind as I worked on other things.
A few years later, my sons asked if I could someday write a book with a boy as the main character. I wasn’t about to turn them down. So I thought about the Klondike idea and tried to figure out what kind of boy would best fit this setting. He had to be resourceful, a kid who could weather the 2,000-mile journey from Seattle to the Yukon goldfields. He also needed to be somewhat naive, believing some of the outlandish rumors that circulated at the time — tales of gold which grew on trees and bicycles which could easily travel the mountainous terrain leading to the Klondike. But he also had to be clever, a child who’d learned, perhaps through difficulty in his own life, to keep one step ahead of everyone else.
It didn’t take me long to realize the perfect model for Jasper was Huckleberry Finn.
When I first met Huck I was fourteen and visiting friends in Spain. We took a road trip between Barcelona and San Sebastian, and I was sick as a dog. Paula, the exchange student who’d lived with my family when I was in elementary school, tucked me in the backseat with one of the few English books she owned — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck was a taste of home when I was far from it. I found Huck was even more fun than his friend, Tom Sawyer, and that was saying something. By the time I was feeling better, I had also finished reading. It was as though Huck and I had been through some sort of hard-won trial together.
Huck and I met again three years later, this time in English class, junior year. It was like visiting with an old friend. I remember laughing out loud at the ridiculous conversations he and Jim had with those nitwit crooks, the King and the Duke. Huck’s sharp observations, sweet gullibility, and tendency to speak his mind almost guaranteed moments of humor, and I fell for that kid, even harder than before.
In 2013, with my Jasper idea brewing, I read the book once again, intent on learning all that I could about Huck himself. I highlighted quotes that shone with Huck-ish sensibility and collected words in his distinct voice, ones like warn’t, knowed, disremember, and dangersome. I noticed that even though he’s dishonest at times, the reader’s firmly on his side. And I saw for the first time the brave way he calls out what’s wrong in his world, even though he has no power to change anything.
Armed with everything I’d gathered, I set out to write Jasper’s story.
Like Huckleberry, Jasper has a no-account Pa he’s desperate to escape. He and his brother Mel ride a raft with a couple of unsavory fellows — not down the mighty Mississippi, but the Yukon River. Just like Huck, Jasper’s an outsider — a kid trying to be heard in a largely unsupportive adult world. He’s far from perfect, but is willing to stand up for what’s right, even at great cost to himself. And though he doesn’t realize it, Jasper’s anxious to be loved. Beneath his self-sufficient exterior beats a tender heart.
Jasper feels like the most earnest character I’ve ever created, a mishmash of bravado and doubt, gumption and innocence. Through the twists and turns of finding his story, Jasper’s voice remained true.
I’ve got Huckleberry Finn to thank for that. So thanks, Huck, for being you, and for inspiring me to create Jasper Johnson, a boy I love as if he were my own.
I hope you’ll love him, too.
Caroline Starr Rose is an award-winning middle grade and picture book author whose books have been ALA-ALSC Notable, Junior Library Guild, ABA New Voices, Kids’ Indie Next, Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for Kids, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. In addition, her books have been nominated for almost two dozen state awards lists. In 2012 Caroline was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico and taught social studies and English in four different states. Caroline now lives with her husband and two sons in New Mexico. Look for her first prose novel, Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, this February.